Comment: Government is basing decisions on a flawed model

The industry needs a laser focus on testing on arrival, argues Lata chief executive Danny Callaghan

What would Albert Einstein say about the travel industry?

We find ourselves at a critical moment in the Covid-19 crisis. Furlough is due to end in less than two months, and there is a groundswell of support to end quarantine restrictions and move to a test-on-arrival programme.

While they may seem only vaguely related, there are an estimated 200,000 jobs at risk in the travel and aviation sectors, and a further 700,000 at risk in the UK hospitality sector due to a lack of inbound tourism. On top of that, we’ve seen calls for workers to return to city centres to support their retail economies, but no recognition of how much tourists spend at retail.

The link is that if we could move away from a quarantine-on-arrival to test-on-arrival model, with the requirement to isolate only for the 12 hours or so it takes to get the results, assuming a negative result of course, tourism could make a restart.

With absolute clarity for travellers, both inbound and outbound, confidence to book will return, saving many of those jobs that are being risked by the industry currently having no view on a restart date.

A time of great risk as well as opportunity

Whilst the growing calls to introduce test-on-arrival are eliciting a response from the government, what we are hearing is worrying. Both Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps have referred to a study that purports to show that a single test-on-arrival would only catch 7% of infections.

The government is basing its current position on ‘testing at the border’ on a highly flawed model that was developed by Public Health England many months ago, when very little was known about the virus. It is placing its faith in incorrect algorithms and ignoring real world data/experience occurring in the rest of the world.

A reliance on a flawed model is causing ministers to make incorrect statements to the general public through the media, eroding confidence, and if the government persists in relying on that flawed model, the risk is that the quarantine will never be abolished, an outcome that does nothing to help our situation.

I have had the pleasure of being able to discuss Covid testing with Collinson, one of the partners involved in creating the testing facility at Heathrow, a facility that is ready to go as soon as the green light is given. They are proposing to use PCR testing, the scientifically-accepted ‘gold standard’ test for detection as a reliable solution to abolishing the quarantine requirement and keep the UK safe from importing further cases of Covid-19.

Is the current model actually creating risk?

In fact, one could argue that the current regimen of safe-lists and quarantines is actually creating risk, because it doesn’t completely ring-fence the UK in that way that test-on-arrival for everyone arriving from abroad would do. Look at the recent problems around the Tui flight from Zante to Cardiff – this was a safe-list flight, with passengers able to go about their business on return to the UK.

As you know, some passengers subsequently fell ill with Covid-19 and there was a plea for anyone on that flight to self-isolate for fourteen days. We have no way of knowing whether those people had been infected in Zante, on the plane, or a mix of both, but we do know that they went back out into their communities, oblivious to their infection and potentially spreading the virus.

Had the UK been operating a 100% test-on-arrival programme, that could all have been avoided, as the infected passengers would have been notified within about 12 hours, and the non-infected passengers returned to their daily lives.

Focus, focus, focus

As I have said before, as an industry we need to focus our demands of the government, separating what we would like from what we need. I know we would like lots of additional financial support, but that probably isn’t coming. What we need is for people to be able to move to and from the UK freely and safely.

I know that the quarantine is only half the battle, because there is still the matter of the foreign office advice, but we don’t need to fight all our battles on the same day. Let’s focus on introducing test-on-arrival at all points of entry, getting rid of the quarantine requirements, and then we can move our focus to the FCDO. One thing at a time.

What does any of this have to do with Albert Einstein?

Remember, Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

If we don’t focus, and the industry continues to issue shopping lists of demands, we will get nowhere. We’ve tried it for months now and got nowhere. Yet not a week goes by without the industry rebranding that same list of demands as a new campaign, with a new logo and a catchy hashtag. Let’s stop doing that and focus on getting people moving, which is what, ultimately, we all need.

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