News | Published July 29 2020

Airport testing no “silver bullet” says Dowden

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has warned that Covid-19 testing at UK airports will not work as a “silver bullet” preventing the need for quarantine on arrival.

Dowden stressed that mere testing would not be sufficient because if the virus is in its early stages of development it could go undetected via false negatives.

He added that the UK is not “at the point where there is a viable alternative to the 14-day quarantine” but hinted that all options were under review.

Dowden’s comments came after John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive at Heathrow airport, said that airports need a “passenger testing regime fast” to avoid “playing a game of quarantine roulette”.

Holland-Kaye was speaking after a record £1.06 billion pre-tax loss for the airport over the six months to June came to light.

He explained that the sudden change of quarantine advice for individuals coming to the UK from Spain highlighted the need for an alternative to the quarantine because of the confusion and uncertainty it caused, suggesting that airport testing could help reduce the amount of time that passengers need to quarantine.

The government’s swift decision to remove Spain from its list of quarantine exempt countries and the subsequent decision from the Foreign Office to extend advice against non-essential travel to the Balearic and Canary Islands as well as mainland Spain, prompted travel industry giant TUI to cancel holidays to Spain’s islands until August 4, which came as a blow after the sector had already been severely hampered by the lockdown.

Under Holland-Kaye’s proposals, passengers would go into quarantine on arrival and be tested again after eight days.

He explained: "If they were infected, we would be confident that it had shown itself. If it was clear, they would be allowed to go out of quarantine earlier than had been the case. It's very scientifically based.”

Holland-Kaye said that he made the suggestion based on a need to “get ‘red countries’ opened up again.”

He said: "Testing is the only viable way of doing that in the absence of a vaccine. A lot of countries which are red listed have millions of people who don't have the disease and can't travel. That's holding back economic recovery.

"This isn't just about the aviation sector, this is about the whole UK economy. We are a small island's trading nation, we rely on imports coming in but also exports going out to help support jobs here in the UK.

"Until we can get aviation flowing again, then the UK economy is going to be stuttering along at much less than its usual capacity and we'll lose millions of jobs."

Testing at airports has been endorsed by Dr Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe.

Dr Kluge told the BBC: "Testing is never wrong - whether at airports, community or drive-in centres - what's the difference between day-to-day life and travelling?"

Airport testing is already being conducted in European countries such as Germany, where they are free of charge and taken on a voluntary basis. It may, however, be made mandatory, which is the case in France for any individuals coming from countries with a higher prevalence of the virus.

Holland-Kaye had suggested the cost of a UK airport test would amount to roughly £150 per person with passengers expected to foot the bill. He added that the price would come down as testing became more regular.

He said: "There are people who are worried about being able to go back to work or get the kids into school, there will be people who are prepared to pay that to avoid the extra period of quarantine.

"The aim would be to have a test on arrival. We could have it up and running in the next two weeks, then we need to work with government to see what happens next."

The government is having to contend with the fact that the number of days required between each test is a crucial factor in reducing the likelihood of returning a false negative result. False negatives are possible if somebody who has Covid-19 is asymptomatic. 

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Authored by

Alexander Bridge-Wilkinson
Junior Editor
July 29 2020

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