Boris Johnson has been told to “get a grip” of his coronavirus quarantine policy as Heathrow Airport pushes for the 14-day isolation period to be shortened.
The travel hub’s chief executive said today that the prime minister needs to act swiftly to stop “holding back the recovery of the UK economy” due to the restrictions on many travellers arriving in the country.
The airport has revealed plans for a new testing facility which it hopes will lead to the end of the two-week mandatory quarantine for those returning from countries removed from the UK’s safe list.
Arriving passengers will be able to book coronavirus swab tests and have results sent to them within seven hours.
Those testing negative could leave quarantine five to eight days after landing.
Heathrow said it has been working with aviation services company Collinson and logistics firm Swissport on a testing facility which is now “ready for use”, adding that the positive economic impact would be “significant”.
More than 13,000 passenger tests can be carried out each day, which can be further scaled with demand.
The pilot of the new testing procedure could be available as a private service to anyone with a flight landing at Terminal 2, and within a few weeks for those arriving at Terminal 5, it said.
The COVID-19 tests, which are identical to the swabs used by the NHS, would be booked online and cost £150. It is hoped this could fall to £50 a passenger – with a state subsidy.
Travellers can then do a second test at home a few days later and leave quarantine early if they pass both checks.
Similar double-testing schemes are being used in several other countries, including Germany and Iceland.
But the proposal needs government approval before it can begin in the UK.
Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye said on Wednesday that “having started well” by introducing different policies for travellers coming from different countries based on risk, the UK has “now fallen behind”.
“We need to move quickly to get people moving through the UK again to help us to recover the UK economy,” he told Ian King Live.
“This is a cross-government decision, and this is a question for Number 10 to get a grip of our border policy to make sure that business can start flowing again…
“This is holding back the recovery of the UK economy and putting thousands and thousands of jobs at risk.
“The government needs to act now to allow testing as an alternative to quarantine so we can get the economy kick-started.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed ministers are thrashing out details on the feasibility of such a regime.
He told Sky News: “We are working with Heathrow and other airports on this project.
“The challenge is – because the virus can incubate inside your body without coming forward and without therefore a test being positive even if you’ve got it – the challenge is how to do that testing in a way that we can have confidence enough to release the quarantine.
“It is absolutely a project that we are working with Heathrow on.
“I clearly understand the impact of quarantine on so many people’s lives. It is not something anybody would want to do.
“So I hope that this project can bear fruit.”
A Heathrow spokesman last week accused the government of playing “quarantine roulette” after a surge of coronavirus cases in France and other countries saw ministers suddenly remove them from the UK’s travel corridor list, sparking a mass exodus as tens of thousands of British tourists rushed back home.
Documents released on Friday from the government’s advice group known as SAGE show a meeting on 18 June found “double testing of travellers significantly reduces the risk of false negatives and could enable quarantine duration of less than 14 days”.
Analysis published by the Office for National Statistics on Tuesday found that only around 28% of people testing positive for COVID-19 reported any evidence of symptoms at the time of their swab test, or at either the preceding or subsequent tests.
Heathrow executives say a double-testing regime of passengers would help protect the economy
The remaining 72% of positive cases either did not report having any of the specific or general symptoms on the day of their positive swab test, preceding or subsequent swab tests, or did not answer both questions, the ONS added.
It said the findings suggested there was a “potentially large number” of asymptomatic cases.
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair has also called for much wider testing to try to trace and control the virus given “we’re not going to be able to eradicate this disease”.
He said that airport testing “would give you a much, much better way of avoiding the strictness of the lockdown and the quarantine rules that are going to do so much damage to business”.