By Adrian Stevens, CEO Inventive Health
We are over 18 months into the pandemic and governments around the world are realising the need to shift their strategy from one of ending COVID to living with it. With cases increasing even in highly vaccinated countries like the UK, containing the virus is an unwinnable war. The unfortunate truth is that the only way to get back the freedoms we previously enjoyed is to accept we need to live with COVID. For heavily disrupted industries like travel and tourism, this cannot come soon enough. Last year alone the sector lost $4.5 trillion and 62 million jobs globally as the pandemic and travel restrictions took their toll. Successfully returning to large-scale international travel and avoiding further disruption will require a testing system that provides a long-term, sustainable, and safe way for people to travel.
Created at short notice, and with a need to deal with immediate issues, the current UK testing system for international travellers is now simply not fit for purpose. The requirement for mandatory PCR testing made sense at the start of the pandemic while the number of people travelling was low and we were still learning about the virus. Now however, despite being a great way to screen for infections, PCR testing is unable to scale to meet the needs of a full return to travel.
Having recently travelled back from South Africa myself, I experienced first-hand the testing procedure in place. Travelling from a high-risk country it took me four hours to pass through Heathrow Airport and arrive at a hotel for my mandatory quarantine. Personally, this was not a problem as I knew I would need to go through a rigorous testing process. However, if I were travelling back from an amber list country, I suspect things would be very different. While quarantine would not be needed, the high cost and time required to do a PCR test would be an issue.
The PCR problem
My aim is not to knock PCR tests. They are the testing gold standard and have a vital role to play in managing the virus. When returning from a high-risk country (like South Africa) it makes sense to carry out PCR tests that can check for new variants. However, for lower-risk countries, PCR’s become very expensive and impractical due to the need for samples to be sent away for laboratory testing. We are starting to see a realisation of this too with the new cost limit for a PCR test. Nonetheless, even with this limit in place. For a young family of four taking a holiday, testing alone can easily be more expensive than flights and accommodation – pricing many out of travel. In truth, using a PCR test for travellers from low-risk countries is now like using a hammer to tighten a screw. It’s just the wrong tool for the job.
At the same time, we cannot simply remove the need for testing. Despite progress in managing the virus being made in the UK, with COVID outbreaks still a common occurrence, it would be an enormous risk to remove testing altogether. Instead, we must make full use of all the tools we have at our disposal to create a smarter, sustainable testing procedure for international travellers.
The right tool at the right time
The good news is that the tools to do this now exist. Having been developed during the pandemic, a new breed of instant COVID tests are available that allow for a long-term testing solution to be put in place. By switching the testing requirements of travellers from low-risk countries from PCR tests to instant COVID testing solutions, the cost of travelling can once again be brought under control. Delivering results in seconds from a swab or non-invasive mouthwash test, these new tests offer lower costs, and quicker results than a PCR or even lateral flow. In fact, a whole family of four could all get tested for less than the cost of one PCR.
At the same time, PCR tests can remain in place for those returning from high-risk countries. Thanks to their unique ability to identify new variants, PCRs can be used for the sort of testing they were originally designed for. Using instant COVID tests for low-risk travellers and PCRs for high-risk ones, we can finally have a system that uses the right tool for the right task.
However, while the technology is ready, we now need legislation to catch up. The current legal requirements on testing mean that only PCR tests can be used for international travel. Time is of the essence. After 18 months of little to no international travel, the industry is on its knees and in need of a solution that will allow it to begin the process of learning to live with the virus. Taking a smarter approach to testing by enabling the use of instant testing for low-risk countries is a big step at the start of this journey.