Should there be Covid-19 testing stations at UK airports where PCR tests are conducted on travellers arriving from high risk, or even all countries?
Currently, there are not. The UK instead follows a “travel corridor” system, where everyone arriving from certain countries is asked to self-isolate at home for two weeks, whether or not they have coronavirus symptoms.
But the question of Covid testing-on-arrival has divided the public, the government, and many people within the travel industry.
How would it work?
There are different ways of carrying out a ‘test on arrival’ system.
One is to administer tests on travellers arriving from high-risk countries, then asking them to self-isolate for five to six days (rather than the UK’s current 14). They would then take a second test, and if this was negative, their self-isolation could end early. This is the system being used in countries such as Barbados and Iceland. The quarantine might be in a government-monitored facility, or at home.
In Germany, testing centres have been set up at major airports including Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg. Once passengers arriving from high-risk areas have been tested, they must go home and isolate until their results become available, which usually takes 24 hours to three days. If the test comes back positive, they are required to complete a 14-day period of self-isolation. If it is negative, most states allow people to carry on as normal, while some require a second negative test within a few days.
Other countries, such as Cyprus, require travellers to submit a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before their arrival in order to be allowed in.
What are the benefits of testing on arrival?
In theory, a test-on-arrival system should shorten the amount of time people need to self-isolate for if they do not have Covid-19. It could also stop people who have contracted the virus unknowingly from spreading it.
The most vocal calls for a test-on-arrival system have been from leading figures in the travel sector, which has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
They argue that the current travel corridor system is stalling the recovery of the industry, and causing confusion and inconvenience for people who wish to travel.
The CEO of Manchester Airports Group, which owns Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands airports, has argued the UK has “stood still” while other countries have introduced testing regimes for travellers.
Charlie Cornish said: “Testing is a safe way to cut the time people need to isolate when they return to the UK from high-risk areas. It would give consumers the confidence to book travel and enable the aviation industry to protect its future.”
In August, Heathrow Airport worked with private companies to set up its own Covid-19 testing station, and began trialling it on staff “to determine the most efficient and user-friendly rapid testing method”. It then shared its findings with the government.
In its system, tests would be conducted at the airport, with the results available within five to eight hours. It could carry out 13,000 tests a day.
Travellers would then be given a kit for a second test to complete five to eight days later at home, with the results known within 72 hours. With government approval, travellers who test negative to both tests would then be released early from quarantine.
What are the downsides to testing on arrival?
The main argument against the system is its complexity. That’s both because of the physical logistics, and because it’s possible not all tests will provide correct results, which could lead to people failing to self-isolate even though they have Covid-19.
In early September, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said testing on arrival was not a “silver bullet” that will help the travel industry recover.
Shapps said that testing on arrival was “unlikely to find the vast majority of people who have travelled with coronavirus and are asymptomatic”
However, at the start of October, the government reportedly told Heathrow Airport it would trial a two-test system in mid-October.
This would be with a particular view to opening a London-New York “air bridge”, a key business route and major money-maker for several airlines.
The system may be tested on this route and rolled out more widely if considered successful.