The chief executive of Heathrow airport said the UK government must urgently introduce a passenger testing regime or face playing a game of “quarantine roulette”.
The renewed call for testing came as Heathrow reported a £1bn loss in the first half of the year after passenger numbers plummeted because of coronavirus.
“Today’s results should serve as a clarion call for the government,” John Holland-Kaye said. “The UK needs a passenger testing regime and fast. Without it, Britain is just playing a game of quarantine roulette.”
He added that other European countries were much further ahead in developing passenger testing regimes while the government’s inaction threatened the UK’s global economic position.
“As many of our customers have experienced, it’s difficult to plan a holiday that way, let alone run a business,” he said. “Testing offers a way to safely open up travel and trade to some of the UK’s biggest markets which currently remain closed. Our European competitors are racing ahead with passenger testing; if the UK doesn’t act soon, global Britain will be nothing more than a campaign slogan.”
Responding to the criticism, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said he understood Heathrow’s frustration. Speaking to the BBC, he said: “There’s not a silver bullet of just testing immediately at the border” because the virus can incubate over a period of time.
Heathrow is proposing introducing a testing programme at the airport that would cost £150 per person, which passengers would be expected to pay, to reduce the 14-day quarantine rule for arrivals.
“So it’s not cheap but, equally, for people who are worried about being able to go back to work or get the kids into school, there will be people who are prepared to pay that to avoid the extra period of quarantine,” Holland-Kaye said.
He added that the cost of the test would come down as more people signed up for it and that passengers would go into quarantine and have a further test in eight days.
“If they were infected we would be confident that it had shown itself,” he said. “If it was clear, they would be allowed to go out of quarantine earlier than had been the case. It’s very scientifically based. We could have it up and running in the next two weeks, then we need to work with government to see what happens next.”
Heathrow’s second-quarter results show that passenger numbers fell 96% while cargo volumes dropped 30%.
Last week, the government abruptly announced that travellers returning from Spain would have to go into self-isolated quarantine for two weeks after a surge in new coronavirus cases in the country.
Heathrow welcomed the government’s “risk-based approach” allowing quarantine-free flights to select “low and medium-risk” countries until any new outbreak is identified but pointed out that it only covers 30% of the airport’s markets.
“Establishing an alternative to quarantine for covid-free passengers from countries should be a priority for the government,” it said. “Pre-flight testing for passengers from high-risk countries will allow long-haul flying to resume, which is critical for the UK’s economic recovery.”
Heathrow said that it expected a gradual recovery in passenger numbers as more countries reopened borders but that overall passenger volumes for this year would be about 60% lower than in 2019.