The case for airport coronavirus testing, and why it matters

The travel industry is pinning its hopes on airport testing to limit quarantine and boost its chances of staggering on through the coronavirus crisis — but is this the magic bullet that will keep us travelling?

Friday, September 25, 2020,
By Sarah Barrell
With a number of destinations either getting booted off or reinstalled on the no-go list with ...

With a number of destinations either getting booted off or reinstalled on the no-go list with confounding frequency as their infection rates rise and fall, the system seems nothing short of a travel industry wrecking ball. Is the only sustainable solution to introduce airport testing?

Photograph by Getty Images

Quarantine roulette; the travel corridor shuffle. Whatever you call it, there’s no doubt that the UK government’s weekly edicts on which countries are to lose their quarantine exemption are, at the very least, disruptive. Many travellers seeking to get home are being given just a few hours’ notice that their destination is no longer within a safe travel corridor, leaving them facing inflated airfares, plus the practical ramifications of suddenly having to quarantine for 14 days on return. With a number of destinations either getting booted off or reinstalled on the no-go list with confounding frequency as their infection rates rise and fall, the system seems nothing short of a travel industry wrecking ball. Is the only sustainable solution to introduce airport testing?

A case for inspiring confidence

“Testing and more testing is the only solution to giving people confidence and getting them moving again,” says Paul Charles, CEO of the PC Agency travel consultancy. A spokesperson for this summer’s effective Quash Quarantine campaign, Charles is also part of the new Test4Travel campaign; a recent poll it conducted suggested that the majority of the British public (62%) would prefer testing on arrival at ports and airports, rather than quarantine for 14 days. More than half said they’d be prepared to cover the cost of the test themselves — a small investment compared to the high price of having to rebook flights and hotels and losing working hours.

“Testing enables travellers to book a trip and be reassured that others around them, on the same flight or cruise for example, are Covid free as well,” continues Charles. “Successful testing also reduces the spread of coronavirus and removes the need for economically damaging, long quarantine periods.”

Testing may enable travellers to book a trip and be reassured that others around them, on the same flight or cruise for example, are Covid-free as well. 

Photograph by Getty Images

This is painfully evident with the fast-approaching ski season. Given that vast majority of ski breaks are seven days or less, few travellers will factor in a two-week quarantine. So, it’s likely many people will book last minute, or simply not bother. It’s far from ideal for an industry that has much to recoup after the previous season prematurely ended in early March. Many operators are looking at a brutal winter if the expected number of bookings fail to materialise in the coming weeks.

“We’re gearing up for the new season and all the resorts we operate to are currently planning to open in December,” says Chris Logan, MD Crystal Ski Holidays. “However, we certainly don’t want to face the same scale of disruption beach holiday operators have experienced. An effective testing programme would be a huge step forward and is what the industry wants and needs.”

Test & test again

To many observers, it seems apparent that quarantine in the UK isn’t working — for those who comply, it can be overly restrictive, while others simply ignore it. But with infection numbers once again rising across the globe, the government remains firmly on the side of quarantine, pointing to the fact that testing isn’t infallible, and could give, according to our Prime Minister, “a false sense of security”. False negative results are a valid concern. These can happen when the virus is incubating and contagious but not detectable. Then there’s the risk of inconclusive, misappropriated, or vastly delayed results — the latter currently seen at test centres nationwide.

But with airport testing in place at destinations across Europe and beyond, and the likes of Italy offering rapid antigen tests that produce results within 30 minutes, it seems clear that the UK lags well behind a test-and-trace approach to travel.

“Britain’s economic recovery is falling behind,” says Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye. “Heathrow’s traffic figures for August demonstrate the extent to which quarantine is strangling the economy, cutting British businesses off from their international markets and blocking international students, tourists and investors from coming here to spend money.”

It may seem that the Italian system is the answer, but opponents note that one test alone won’t catch someone who’s incubating the virus. In recent months, Heathrow has trialled several test solutions, including its PCR testing-on-arrival pilot, with a test facility unveiled at the airport in mid-August. Subject to government approval, this could provide passengers arriving from countries with higher infection rates with a reduced quarantine period if they test negative for coronavirus twice, during the proposed two-stage process. It’s also trialled three rapid-testing solutions on staff volunteers to find out if these could be efficiently conducted on large numbers of people in an airport environment, with the data being shared with the government.

“£63m per day will be lost to the UK economy in 2020 through the lack of international visitors who aren’t prepared to travel because they can’t quarantine for 14 days.”

by Paul Charles, CEO of the PC Agency travel consultancy

International focus

Meanwhile, G20 leaders are considering an international plan for airport coronavirus testing.

A proposal by the World Travel and Tourism Council intends to “revive travel and tourism” and protect jobs; its analysis of Public Health England data suggested that two tests in quick succession could be 80% effective in identifying passengers with coronavirus. It advocates a ‘traffic light’ system of reporting infection rates in different destinations to determine how many tests would be needed by arrivals from different countries. The results could reduce the quarantine period from 14 to four-six days, or none at all — a model that’s been used successfully in Iceland since June this year.

Backing the plan (due to be considered by EU tourism ministers later this month, and G20 leaders in October) are over 100 of the world's leading travel and aviation businesses — the likes of British Airways and tour operator TUI, along with hotel groups and airports.

Paul Charles warns, “Organisations such as the World Travel and Tourism Council have calculated the high cost of not introducing testing — £22bn, or £63m per day, will be lost to the UK economy in 2020, for example, through the lack of international visitors who aren’t prepared to travel because they can’t quarantine for 14 days.”

For the latest travel restrictions and requirements, visit gov.uk

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