Coronavirus: should tests be done at UK airports or after a week of quarantine?


As coronavirus rule changes play havoc with holidaymakers’ plans, travel industry leaders are calling for Covid-19 testing at UK borders to replace two-week quarantines.

Heathrow’s chief executive says the airport could have a testing system up and running in a fortnight – but officials and scientists are divided about how and when to test incoming travellers.

“We need to find a way of getting ‘red countries’ opened up again,” said Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye, referring to destinations on the UK government’s mandatory quarantine list.

“Testing is the only viable way of doing that in the absence of a vaccine,” he told The Telegraph. “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.”

On Saturday, the government added Spain to the red list with just a few hours’ notice, leaving many travellers who had expected to go straight back to work upon their return instead facing 14 days of self-isolate.

Travel bosses are desperate for “a state-backed programme of Covid-19 tests at the border, minutes after passengers arrive, allowing quarantine-free entry to Britain”, says The Times.

But their wish is unlikely to be granted.

“Ministers are unconvinced and seem to be holding out for delayed testing, potentially conducted at least a week after arrival,” the newspaper reports. This would allow time for infections that occur during the return journey to incubate.

Scientific modelling suggests that “testing travellers a week after their arrival in the UK could catch 94% of coronavirus cases and halve quarantine times”, The Guardian reports.

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The paper cites research conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which also found that “a test on day five with release on day six results in a median 88% reduction in transmission”.

However, says The Times, experts at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the US found that tests remain unreliable for several days after exposure to Covid-19.

“On the first day after a person was exposed to the virus the chance of a false negative was found to be 100%,” the paper reports. “On day four it was about 67%. Even on day five the chance of a false negative was still about 38%.”

Such statistics indicate that airport testing is “not useless but it’s not far off”, a government source told The Guardian.

Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Reading University, told the paper that “quarantine could potentially be shortened by giving people tests every other day while they self-isolated, and releasing them from quarantine when they tested negative three times in a row”.

Given that tests cost about £150 each, the rule change would not come cheap.

Nevertheless, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick ThomasSymonds has called on the government to abandon its blanket approach to high-risk countries.

“I think you need a smarter set of quarantine measures at the airport,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I’ve suggested this test, trace and isolate regime but you can also have temperature checking and other things. You look at a range of measures.”

According to The Telegraph, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is also in favour of combining tests with shorter quarantines. But Boris Johnson gave little hope yesterday to those seeking a change in policy.

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“It’s vital that when people are coming back from abroad, if they are coming back from a place where I’m afraid there is another outbreak, they must go into quarantine,” the prime minister said.



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