Long-awaited ministerial clearance for a Covid-19 testing trial at airports could come as early as Thursday.
A system for testing on arrival into the UK could halve the existing 14-day quarantine restrictions for people travelling from the increasing number of countries not on the government’s travel corridor list and act as a stimulus for severely impacted international travel.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps, speaking at the Conservative party conference on Monday, stressed that a period of quarantine would still be required for travellers arriving from countries outside of the travel corridor but that it could be limited with testing.
Without going into details about the government’s plan, he indicated that it would be more complicated than just testing people as they arrived at airports, as that would pick up only about 7% of asymptomatic cases.
“The next stage is to enable testing, which people sometimes wrongly think is a very straightforward thing – ‘Why don’t you just test people at the airport? If you know they’re clear, let people in, job done,’” Shapps said.
“The answer is that in someone who is asymptomatic, not displaying any symptoms, that won’t find a very large proportion of cases. In fact the studies show that if you check somebody on the first day that they arrive, you will probably just find 7% of people who actually do have the virus.
“So we have got to be a bit smarter than that. The way to do that is to still have a period of quarantine but also test and be able to release people. I will be saying more about that shortly.”
In an earlier interview with the i newspaper, Shapps highlighted that any testing for international arrivals must be done privately.
“If you are a holidaymaker you don’t want to be taking up an NHS test because you have flown somewhere, which is a discretionary thing to do,” he said.
“Anything that we do with testing at airports or testing a week later must be done through private capacity.”
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, has put forward a proposal to government for a two-test system without adding pressure on the NHS.
All travellers from high risk countries would show a negative test certificate on arrival then quarantine for only four days before paying to take a second test on the fifth day.
Charles told The Telegraph: “I know that government has been working for some weeks on a testing solution for travellers into and out of the UK.
“The policy that’s going to be announced will avoid further pressure n the NHS and put more of the onus for the cost of the test on the passenger.
“This will enable hotels, tour operators and airlines to offer pricing with tests included, making it easier for travellers to buy an all-inclusive travel package.
“I’m hoping that a UK traveller testing policy will help to unlock the quarantine restrictions which at the moment are strangling the sector and preventing recovery.”
A testing facility for international arrivals readied for use in August at Heathrow may not end up being used, depending on what plan the government opts for, the airport’s chief executive said last week.
“We don’t know whether testing at the airport will end up being part of the solution,” John Holland-Kaye told Travel Weekly.
“We know that the government isn’t comfortable with just a single test on arrival to give them confidence that people aren’t carrying Covid when they come into the country.
“And that’s because if you’ve only just contracted the disease you may not show up on a PCR test and that’s why they prefer to have a period of quarantine … But it may well be the case that those testing facilities at the airport are needed, in which case we’re ready to go quickly once the government says yes.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson told The Guardian: “Work is ongoing with clinicians and health experts on the practicalities of using testing to reduce the self-isolation period for international arrivals.
“The secretary of state has made clear there will be an announcement on this shortly.”
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