Testing passengers for Covid-19 on arrival in the UK is “not a silver bullet”, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has said, as Downing Street continues to come under pressure over quarantine plans.
Dowden said people could initially test negative before the virus incubated and then risk spreading it afterwards, meaning the government was “not convinced” the method would be sufficient.
His comments came after the boss of Heathrow airport urged the government to allow a trial in which passengers would be tested on arrival and then again several days later, allowing a significantly shorter quarantine period, in an attempt to save the summer season.
The tourism industry was plunged into disarray when the UK government advised against all non-essential travel to Spain on Saturday and, with just a few hours’ warning, imposed a 14-day quarantine for people arriving from the country. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson said Europe was beginning to experience a second wave of Covid-19 infections, stressing it was “vital” that those returning from places with an outbreak quarantined.
Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, told the Telegraph (paywall) the airport – which has announced a pre-tax loss of £1.1bn for the first six months of the year – could have a system “up and running” in a fortnight, meaning arrivals could be tested for coronavirus at a cost of £150. If the result was negative, they would be tested again five or eight days later, with a second negative result potentially allowing them to come out of quarantine.
Dowden suggested the government was not convinced by proposals to test passengers on arrival. Asked about the idea of testing at airports, he told LBC radio on Wednesday: “The challenge with that, and of course we have examined it, is that it’s not a silver bullet so you can test negative initially and then the virus can incubate and you can spread.
“So we do not get the assurance just from a test as people arrive in the UK. Again, I keep saying through all of this, we are reviewing all of these things because we want to minimise the disruption. We want to ensure people can go on holiday but we are not convinced at the moment that would be sufficient to give that assurance that we’re not spreading the virus.”
And he told BBC Breakfast: “In relation to testing at airports, the challenge we have here is that it’s not the case you can simply test somebody and be sure that they don’t have the disease. It can incubate over a period of time, so there’s not a silver bullet of just testing immediately at the border.”
Pressed on the idea of a pilot scheme whereby people could be tested at the airport and then followed up and monitored, Dowden said: “Well, of course, we’ll keep all these things under review.”
Britons should continue to book holidays, Dowden said, but warned people “need to be aware of the risk that quarantine could be imposed”.
Speaking later, Holland-Kaye told BBC Breakfast: “There must be a middle-ground that we can find and, based on the medical evidence, testing at either one and five days, or one in eight days, could be the answer. Other countries are doing that to get their economies moving safely. We need to be doing the same.”