Comment: Testing, testing – can you hear me?

The UK government should follow the lead of our European neighbours, says The PC Agency’s chief executive Paul Charles

Who’s right and who’s wrong? More than 30 chief medical officers from countries around the world, who are vigorously testing passengers at their airports, or prime minister Boris Johnson and professor Chris Whitty in the UK, who have not sanctioned any form of testing on arrival?

Surely those countries can’t all be wrong on the principle of strict testing protocols at their ports of entry?

After continuing pressure from many of us in the travel sector, from as long as four months ago, there are signs that 10 Downing Street may finally be ready to change its strict stance on the issue. Especially as Conservative MPs and Labour’s shadow home secretary are now also wading in.

Not only do the majority of British citizens (62%) prefer testing on arrival to 14 days of quarantine, as the results of The PC Agency/AudienceNet poll for The Daily Telegraph show, but they would also be prepared to pay a minimum of £50 for it, as visitors to Iceland do.

In addition, our new research shows countries that have expanded their airport testing of arriving holidaymakers have seen their national coronavirus infection rates decline. The results firmly challenge the UK government’s contention that testing on arrival is ineffective and catches only 7% of cases.

Our research shows that Greece, which carries out more than 9,000 tests a day at its ports of entry, has seen its case rate per 100,000 fall from 14.3 to 13.1, while Denmark, which uses five-minute tests on arrivals, has dropped from 15.4 to 14.6.

Germany has slipped from 10.1 to 9.0, Cyprus is down from 9.4 to 7.5 and Singapore down from 10.4 to 5.8. Cyprus, in particular, is still one of the most impressive countries in the world for keeping its cases/100,000 at low levels. It has one of the highest testing rates in the EU as a proportion of its population. It should be commended for taking a tough stance, demanding proof of negative Covid tests for anyone entering its borders.

So, what are the options for the UK to introduce?

Crucially, the government needs to reduce the 14-day quarantine period. It is strangling the travel sector; putting off international visitors, to the tune of £22 billion in lost income according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC); and leading to many consumers unable to go on holiday because they’re unable, or can’t afford, to self-isolate from work for so long.

That leaves the option of the two-test solution; once on arrival into the UK, a five-day quarantine, and then a second test. You are free to roam if twice found negative; you can even walk the dog.

Or the government could choose the seven-day option, with just one test on day seven of quarantine but this would still put off business and leisure travellers from coming to the UK. It would also fail to allay the government’s concerns about one test not being accurate enough to catch the majority of cases, even though one test appears good enough for NHS testing centres around the UK.

There is one final option, and perhaps the most attractive for those of us in the travel sector – making it mandatory for anyone entering the UK to prove they have tested negative in the preceding 48 hours, then quarantine for four days and take a second test on day five. This would spread the pressure on testing into other countries; meet the government’s key aim of double-testing and also prevent the vast majority of cases being transmitted. In minimal time.

More than two million British tourists travelled abroad from early July to the end of August. Yet positive case numbers barely went up in the UK during that period, proving that most people were not importing Covid-19.

As an industry, we have to focus on this one issue at the moment so as to re-ignite business and leisure travel. Opening up our borders with airport and follow-up testing is essential, instead of 14-day quarantine measures. Let’s get the government to outline its strategy on this. Only traveller testing will bring in much-needed revenues.


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