Airport Covid testing could start within weeks, says Heathrow chief

Two-test model could cut quarantine period in half, and allow popular London-New York route to reopen next month

Covid testing for passengers arriving in the UK could begin within weeks, according to Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye. The airport has been told by Boris Johnson that the government is aiming to begin trials by mid-October, with the potential for a New York-London route opening by the end of November.

The model is expected to use the two-test approach for those arriving from high-risk countries. In a system that would effectively cut the current 14-day quarantine at least in half, passengers will take one test before departure, and another five or seven days after arrival.

Speaking during a Travel Weekly webcast, Holland-Kaye said that following successful trials, the resumption of flights between New York and London, one of the world’s busiest routes, would be “entirely feasible” by Thanksgiving (26 November). This would rely on the UK and US governments agreeing to a pilot project, which could then be rolled out to other countries with the aim of creating an “international standard”.

“We’ve heard from the prime minister that he hopes to go to a trial in the second half of October,” Holland-Kaye said. “It would take a couple of weeks to put into practice, but if we get good results, there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to extend it. It’s possible that in the first or second quarter of next year, we’ll see ‘rapid point-of-care’ tests becoming more normal.”

New York City, Aerial view of downtown district
Rapid testing could see regular London-New York flights resume late next month. Photograph: Getty Images

The tests would be done privately, costing passengers around £150. The test facility, which will be managed by aviation services firm Swissport and the Collinson Group, which runs airport lounges, is expected to be integrated with the government’s test-and-trace system.

Facilities have been ready to go at Heathrow terminals 2 and 5 for some time, along with temperature scanning equipment. The airport is now waiting for the green light to roll out the pilot, with a decision possible within days, said Holland-Kaye.

Unlike PCR testing – the “gold-standard” test used by the UK government, where samples have to be sent off to a lab – rapid testing technology can provide results within as little as 20 seconds, and an hour at most.

“Currently the bottleneck is the availability of the government’s preferred PCR testing labs; rapid point-of-care tests solve that problem,” said Holland- Kaye. “I have experienced [tech company] iAbra’s rapid test myself, and it is quicker, cheaper and potentially more accurate than the PCR test.”

iAbra is about to start clinical trials aimed at making its testing model certifiable for medical use. The British tech startup said that the procedure “does not need to be administered by healthcare professionals and is repeatable”. Each screening device, it said, can carry out hundreds of tests a day at an eventual cost per test equivalent to that of a paperback book.

Although the government has yet to make any official announcements on airport testing, transport secretary Grant Shapps has signalled several times that he favours a double-test approach.

Paul Charles, of travel consultancy the PC Agency, is among the many travel sector bosses who have been calling for airport testing since early May. “Testing travellers, whether on departure or on arrival, is one of the most important steps the government could take,” he said. “It would boost confidence in travelling and offer substantial reassurance, knowing that those around you at the airport or on a plane are Covid-free.”

Recent research from Skyscanner found that 84% of travellers would be more likely to travel if testing was in place.


Antonia Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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