Covid-19 tests on arrivals may offer the best way to ease quarantine restrictions, but there are multiple issues to resolve before testing can be in place.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye called for tests at airports last week, insisting: “We can move fast.” He suggested “something up and running in two weeks” would allow “people travelling to Spain today [to be tested] on the way back”.
However, industry sources concede it is unlikely tests on arrivals can save the summer peak.
Ministers are considering reducing the 14-day quarantine to 10 days if travellers test negative – health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that last week. But the reduction would be on the basis of two tests – a first on arrival and a second after eight days.
There are a number of issues.
First, there is the testing regime, since a single test would not satisfy health requirements.
A London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study suggested a single test could miss 50% of infections.
A separate study at the US Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found the chances of a test like those planned at Heathrow showing a false-negative result for someone with no symptoms as 100% the day after the person was infected, 67% at day four and 38% at day five.
Second, there is the cost. The tests Heathrow proposes cost £150. Two tests would double the price.
Third, where would the initial tests take place? Heathrow, the World Travel & Tourism Council and many in the industry suggest passengers be tested on arrival. But airports are generally opposed to this, arguing they don’t have the space.
Airlines, led by Iata, want tests before departure to cut the number of infected people flying.
Fourth, there is the need for harmonised test regimes. Iata has warned a “disparity of testing requirements” around the Middle East is “causing more problems” than it solves.
A leading airline source told Travel Weekly: “Heathrow is trying to take a lead, but it’s not necessarily where we’ll end up.
“The question is how long will testing take to set up? We’ve got to have the science and the economics brought together with the level of risk. We don’t know the final outcome.
“Airlines have huge concerns over the costs. If we have tests that still require quarantine, people will wonder whether it’s a way forward.”
A second airline source confirmed: “We’re looking at testing as an alternative [to blanket quarantine]. But it could take time to satisfy Public Health England. One test reduces the risk but does not eliminate it. Would two tests be the way to do it?
“Cost is clearly an issue. If it’s too expensive, it’s not going to be an option for leisure travellers. But at the moment we’re just looking at could it work?”
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