The U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government is working on introducing tests for Covid-19 at ports and airports, a move that would ease the requirement on travelers to self-isolate on arrival.
“This is one of the examples of why mass testing can help,” Hancock told BBC Radio on Wednesday. “If you can have a test technology where the test result comes back in a matter of minutes rather than the next day because you don’t have to send it to the lab, then you can check that people don’t have and aren’t transmitting the virus now.”
Travel Chaos Gives Passengers Headaches at Tail End of Summer
With many British schools on their summer vacations, the requirement for holidaymakers to isolate for two weeks on returning from abroad is one of the most prominent examples of the tension between the government’s desire to get life back to normal and its fear that infection levels will start to rise. Recent moves to add Spain and France to the U.K. quarantine list triggered a backlash from the travel industry.
Hancock said his “moonshot” solution was fast tests for the virus on a mass scale, “to have testing ubiquitous and available to reopen all sorts of things, to reduce the burden of the quarantine arrangements which nobody wants to have in place, to allow us to reopen parts of the economy.”
But the health secretary pointed out that the problem with simply testing arrivals from overseas is that the virus can incubate undetectably for up to two weeks, meaning that repeat tests are needed to ensure it doesn’t emerge in the days after a test.
London’s Heathrow Airport is currently seeking government approval for a testing center it has set up for new arrivals, which would allow people to pay for a test on landing, with the results ready within a few hours. A further negative test a few days later might allow for a shorter isolation period.
Underlining the economic stakes, Heathrow Airport Ltd. Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye on Wednesday warned that 25,000 jobs are at risk at the capital’s main airport because of the decline in air travel and the quarantine measures putting people off flying.
“Now is the time to take the initiative, open our borders in a safe way by moving to testing, and then very quickly moving to these fast and cheap tests with a high level of accuracy that will allow people to go back to the normal life,” Holland-Kaye told Times Radio. If full testing is introduced, “probably at least 10,000 jobs could be saved if we can get people flying again.”
But such systems are easier to implement at airports, where there is a lot of queuing anyway, than at ferry terminals or at the exit to the Channel Tunnel linking the U.K. and France, where cars leave the train and drive straight onto the motorway.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that though travel firms were pushing for tests on arrival as a way round the isolation requirements, there was little prospect of their being introduced imminently. Faster tests are needed in greater quantity, the official added.
Hancock declined to give a firm deadline for the roll-out of mass testing.
“We’re ramping it up over the remainder of this year,” he said. “We are going as fast as we can working with dozens of these companies, both homegrown and international to get the very best testing capacity.”
In a sign of how testing capacity has increased, the Office for National Statistics said it will increase its surveillance testing numbers from the current level of 28,000 people every two weeks to 150,000 people every two weeks by October. When the U.K. went into lockdown in late March, the country’s entire testing capacity was about 6,000 a day, and was only being used only for people in hospital.