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Coronavirus: How can UK test its way out of travel trouble?

Giving travellers the ‘all clear’ from coronavirus as soon as possible would curtail their period of quarantine.

This would allow them to go back to working and spending – both crucial for the survival of Britain’s economy.

Research suggests testing passengers on arrival would catch around 50 per cent of those who are infected. 

However, some period of quarantine would still be necessary for those testing negative.

This is because many infected people would slip through the first test because it takes on average five to six days to begin displaying symptoms after exposure to the virus.

After seven days of quarantine, a second test would pick up 94 per cent of carriers, according to new scientific modelling by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTR). 

Those free of the virus could then be exempt from the rest of the quarantine period.

Scientists say testing people arriving in the UK from overseas can provide an essential tool to curb the pandemic.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘This is a welcome illustration of the principle that testing can be used to reduced the need for quarantine. 

‘It is possible that a double testing strategy could be almost as effective as 14 days quarantine.’

Dr Andrew Freedman, reader in infectious diseases at Cardiff University, said: ‘This modelling study from the LSHTR provides a strong argument in favour of shortening the quarantine period from the current 14 days to eight days, by performing a test on day seven after arrival.

‘This would have a very significant benefit to the individual traveller as well as the travel industry as a whole.’

Professor Jose Vazquez-Boland, chairman of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said it would help prevent the importation of new infections.

‘These tests are important to halt international transmission and to protect a country from new Covid-19 flare-ups,’ he said. ‘As such they are an essential tool to curb the pandemic.’

Airports may be able to provide testing centres on site, allowing travellers to book ahead and take their first test immediately. Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye has said he could have testing sites ready ‘within weeks’. 

Transport logistics companies Swissport and Collinson said they have already devised a proposal for testing on arrival.

A spokesman said it is ‘safe, prioritises public health, and also enables industries in crisis – including aviation, hospitality, tourism, and all those sectors that rely on international trade – to get back on their feet’. 

It would allow travellers to book a test – known as a ‘polymerase chain reaction’ or PCR test – which would then be processed within 24 hours – and in most cases within seven hours.

‘Following receipt of a negative PCR test, travellers would be released from quarantine,’ the spokesman said.

Heathrow boss Mr Holland-Kaye has said a UK airport test would cost about £150 each, with passengers expected to pay. 

It is feasible that the second test could take place at current Government swab centres, which are currently running with unused capacity – although this would change in the event of a second spike.

Currently, NHS tests are free for anyone showing symptoms. 

It is not clear whether this – if the Government were to adopt a test on arrival scheme – would remain the case for people who have returned from overseas and who require a second test to free themselves from quarantine.

Coronavirus testing is still not foolproof. It can give ‘false positives’, for example.

In those circumstances, on arrival testing could force a passenger into a 14-day quarantine unnecessarily.

‘False negatives’ – which fail to detect the virus even though it is present – would also be a risk.

Could we quarantine only those who have visited regions where there is an outbreak?

UK officials say this would be an administrative nightmare.

They would have to keep constant track of the situation in hundreds or thousands of places, and then communicate that information clearly to travellers.

A country-wide quarantine plan is far simpler and, they say, safer.



Travelbosses last night urged Boris Johnson to drop blanket restrictions on whole countries as the row over quarantine rules escalated.

Amid signs of a major revolt, a coalition of 47 airlines, airports and tourism leaders also called on him to introduce virus tests for those arriving in the UK – warning the industry could be ‘permanently scarred’.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the bosses of British Airways, Easy Jet, Jet2 and Wizz Air demanded the ‘urgent’ adoption of a more ‘nuanced’ policy. 

The signatories also included chief executives of Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Liverpool, London City, Newcastle, Belfast, Birmingham and Bristol airports.

They called for the introduction of ‘regional travel corridors’ to replace blanket measures that mean those arriving from any part of an at-risk country have to quarantine for 14 days. 

They suggested this could allow holidaymakers to resume travel to the Spanish islands and some US states.

But as he returned to the UK last night having cut short his own family holiday to Spain, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the Government’s decision to require travellers from the country to isolate for 14 days.

He expressed sympathy with holidaymakers’ frustrations at the change brought in with just a few hours’ notice on Saturday evening, but insisted it was the ‘right thing to do’.

Mr Shapps said: ‘I very much understand, it obviously had an impact on me and my family and I’m very, very sorry and upset for the thousands of Brits who are either away or perhaps even haven’t managed to go away this summer as well to Spain.

‘But it’s absolutely essential we acted when we did, it’s why all four nations of the United Kingdom acted together and the figures since have turned out to justify that action.

‘We have to, I think, have a clear message and make sure we act by adding entire countries to that list for the time being.’

He said the Government had considered excluding certain Spanish islands from the measures but chief medical officer Chris Whitty ‘was very clear with us that he was concerned about the data’.

He added: ‘It had doubled in just a few days. He was concerned to see what was happening in the islands and that’s why we make it a whole-country approach in these things.’

Pressure was last night growing on the Government to offer travellers coronavirus tests when they arrive in this country.

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye yesterday warned holidaymakers face a disastrous ‘quarantine roulette’ unless the airport testing is adopted. He proposed that travellers are tested on arrival before going into quarantine. 

They would have a second test five or eight days later and – if clear – go back to normal life.Former Cabinet minister David Davis last night supported the suggestion, saying: ‘Vienna has been doing this for months. I don’t understand why we haven’t.’

In their joint letter, travel bosses argued testing has ‘the potential to be a game-changing additional tool for authorities to safely open up travel without quarantine from countries or regions deemed higher risk, such as the United States’.

The group also called for blanket quarantine restrictions on arrivals from whole countries to be replaced by regional ones. 

They wrote: ‘This would allow for quarantine-free travel to unaffected parts of a country, including not just Spain but other key markets for trade and tourism like the United States and Canada.’

The industry leaders wrote that the introduction of quarantine measures for Spain at the weekend had been the ‘latest significant blow to a sector which now risks being permanently scarred’.

They added: ‘We fully support the objective of maintaining public health and supporting travel only where safe to do so. 

However, the lack of a more targeted approach to quarantine and travel advice will simply further damage the travel and hospitality sector by creating uncertainty.’ 

Latest figures from Spain yesterday showed 1,153 new virus infections in the past 24 hours, down 700 from the previous day. 

Ministers are understood to be considering if airport esting could be used to ease quarantine restrictions, but sources last night insisted there were no imminent changes planned.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden yesterday stressed there was ‘no viable alternative to the 14-day quarantine’. He said: ‘It (coronavirus) can incubate over a period of time, so there’s not a silver bullet of just testing immediately at the border.’

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