London Heathrow Airport has welcomed yesterday’s (7 September) government announcement that testing to shorten quarantine in the UK is being considered.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps said he was aware of the considerable interest in testing at borders to see if the necessity to self-isolate could be removed.
He said: “It sounds logical, but [testing] will not capture most of those who are asymptomatically carrying coronavirus. Those who are symptomatic should not be travelling the first place.”
Shapps added: “Quarantine combined with testing is more promising, but this could not be the pure test-on-arrival option. It would not work. We are actively working on the practicalities of using testing to release people from quarantine earlier than 14 days.
“My officials are working with health experts with the aim of cutting the quarantine period without adding to infection risk or infringing on our overall NHS test capacity.”
NEW ISLANDS POLICY
The Transport Secretary also announced a new islands policy in parliament yesterday. This more targeted approach to travel corridors involves the separation of some islands from mainland countries. Under the new policy, areas presenting higher or lower public health risks to UK travellers can be assessed separately to the rest of the country.
As of 4am tomorrow (9 September), those arriving in England from Crete, Lesvos, Mykonos, Santorini, Serifos, Tinos or Zakynthos must self-isolate for two weeks.
Shapps commented: “Our top priority has always been to keep domestic infection rates down. Today we’re taking the next step in our approach. Through the use of enhanced data, we will now be able to pinpoint risk in some of the most popular islands, providing increased flexibility to add or remove them — distinct from the mainland — as infection rates change.
“This development will help boost the UK’s travel industry while continuing to maintain maximum protection to public health, keeping the travelling public safe.”
A Heathrow Airport Spokesperson said: “We welcome the Transport Secretary’s announcement that testing to shorten quarantine is under active consideration by the government and that airbridges to islands will now be instated where appropriate.
“If introduced, these vital policy changes would show the government understands how critical the restoration of air travel is to this country’s economic recovery. The government needs to build on these developments and show global leadership to establish Common International Standards for testing before flight.”
In July this year, Heathrow indicated it was ready to pilot a testing system for passengers arriving from ‘red countries’ which could prevent them from having to quarantine.
A month later the airport established a dedicated testing facility which would shorten the 14-day quarantine for passengers arriving from certain countries. As part of a proposed two-stage pilot, passengers would take a test on arrival followed by a second confirmatory one in the days following the first test.
Should the government adopt a quarantine-combined-with-testing approach, London Heathrow will be able to press ahead with these plans. If its testing plan comes to fruition, travellers testing negative to both tests will be released early from quarantine.
Responding to the Transport Secretary’s statement in the House of Commons, Charlie Cornish, CEO Manchester Airports Group acknowledged: “It is good that Grant Shapps is responding to the concerns of the aviation industry and committing government to look at how testing can be used to reduce the time people need to spend in quarantine.
“Adopting a regionalised approach to travel corridors is also welcome news and long overdue. Even though it will initially mean restrictions on travel to some Greek islands, it should enable key markets like the Balearics and Canaries to open up again more quickly.
“We look forward to seeing more detail about this targeted approach as soon as possible and to working together to continue refining the system of corridors and quarantine, including considering regions within countries on the mainland.”
On the subject of testing, Cornish remarked: “The top priority should be bringing in a testing regime that will shorten the period of time passengers have to self-isolate. With hundreds of thousands of travel sector jobs at stake and the summer holiday season already behind us, progress must be made on this as a matter of urgency.”
‘WELCOME STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION’
Karen Dee, President, Airport Operators Association (AOA) believes treating islands separately to a mainland, for the purposes of quarantine, is a welcome step in the right direction for government policy. That said, she emphasised that the quarantine requirement is devastating the UK aviation industry and that this change is unlikely to improve consumer confidence significantly.
Dee, who believes it’s essential that we find a safe alternative to the current quarantine situation concluded: “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.
“Government must work quickly and decide upon a testing regime which can be put in place as soon as possible. The aviation sector cannot continue operating against these headwinds for much longer. The Airport Operators Association estimates more than 100,000 jobs are at risk unless the industry can re-start properly. A testing regime for UK aviation would help kick-start such a recovery.”