UK government resists airport COVID-19 testing

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The UK’s major airports have said they are ready launch COVID-19 testing if the British government gives them the permission 
Heathrow Airport

As the aviation industry seeks to find ways to restore passenger confidence in air travel, the UK government is standing by its opinion that on-arrival COVID-19 testing is unreliable.

The UK introduced a 14-day quarantine requirement for passengers arriving in the country from June 8. It applies to almost everyone, including those who have recovered from COVID-19 and travellers who have tested negative and do not have any symptoms. However, there a list of exempt destinations and a waiver for those deemed to be essential workers who travel as part of their job.

The list of quarantine-required countries has seen numerous changes – additions and removals – since its initial introduction to reflect the coronavirus infection rate at the locales concerned. These multiple revisions have created deep uncertainty among potential passengers, thousands of whom who have ultimately decided against travelling for fear of being forced to self-isolate for 14 days upon returning from their holidays. The government as soon as possible list is essential to keep down the COVID-19 transmission rate and prevent a potentially devastating second wave of infections, but several industry spokespersons have called for a risk-based approach to be taken to reinstate travellers’ confidence. All of London’s major airports have said they are at an advance stage of preparation for introducing the tests and will be ready to do so at a week or two’s notice if the government approves them. Heathrow already has one test facility set up in Terminal Two and is in the process of preparing another in Terminal Five. The Heathrow plan envisages passengers having an initial test upon arrival, with a second confirmation test being required a few days later. The tests will cost about £150 per person, although family rates are expected to be introduced.

The government must maintains work quickly and decide that the upon a testing regime quarantine that can be put in place

Karen Dee CEO, AOA 

While industry pressure to relax the quarantine requirements has yet to succeed, the government did offer a degree of help on September 7.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which helps the government decide which countries should be on its quarantine list, had now provided enough data to be able to allow – or deny – quarantine-free travel between the UK and locations with natural borders, such as islands that are separate from their mainland nation. However, when announcing the so-called new ‘travel corridors’, he then named seven Greek Islands which had been added to the list of quarantine-required countries from September 9, while at the same time leaving mainland Greece on the government’s exempt list.

The introduction of the travel corridors has been widely welcomed by the travel industry, but airports and airlines still maintain that upon-arrival COVID tests will be the key factor in restoring passenger confidence, helping to increase flight bookings and also avoiding further large-scale job losses.

Karen Dee, CEO of the Airport Operators Association (AOA), commented: “Treating islands separately from a mainland for the purposes of quarantine is a welcome step in the right direction for government policy. But the quarantine requirement is devastating the UK aviation industry and this change is unlikely to improve consumer confidence significantly. It is essential that we find a safe alternative. Industry has been calling for government action on a testing regime for the aviation system for months, while the sector has suffered through its worst summer in a generation. While there are certainly some issues with testing immediately on arrival – as the transport secretary outlined – there are other options available, such as testing on day five or day eight after arrival, which could improve the situation.

“The government must work quickly and decide upon a testing regime that can be put in place as soon as possible. The aviation sector cannot continue operating against these headwinds for much longer – AOA estimates that more than 100,000 jobs are at risk unless the industry can restart properly. A testing regime for UK aviation would help kickstart such a recovery.”