The first rapid pre-departure Covid testing for passengers is to be carried out at Heathrow from today (Tuesday).
The one-hour test will enable travellers access to countries where a negative result for the virus is needed to avoid a period of quarantine.
It will initially only be available for passengers going to Hong Kong and Italy, which allow quick pre-flight tests as evidence that travellers are Covid-free.
Tests have to be booked in advance at a cost of £80 with a result available in 20 minutes.
The rapid saliva swab, available at Heathrow Terminals 2 and 5, is known as a Lamp (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification) test.
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific will offer it to customers.
A Lamp test is quicker than the PCR test, which is widely used in the NHS, because the sample does not need to be sent to a laboratory.
Collinson, the company behind the initiative at Heathrow, admitted that the Lamp test is “slightly less sensitive” than the PCR test.
However, the Lamp test is considered to be better than another rapid option – the antigen test.
Collinson chief executive David Evans told the BBC that “health screening” was quickly becoming another stage of the airport experience.
He said passengers would only have to turn up at the airport an hour earlier.
Testing would help give people confidence to travel, because flights would be “Covid-secure”.
“It starts to make travel easier again,” he said.
Collinson, which partners with Swissport, hopes testing will help open up routes between the UK and other countries.
People arriving in Italy from the UK must now either prove they had a negative coronavirus test before departure, or take a test on arrival at an airport. Italy was removed from the UK’s travel corridors list last week.
However, the type of test offered at Heathrow is not sufficient for people travelling to some destinations, such as Greece, Cyprus, the Bahamas and Bermuda.
All those destinations currently require proof of a negative PCR test, which requires analysis in a laboratory.
It is hoped that more countries will change their rules and allow for other types of test, which could be administered on the spot at Heathrow.
However, the new testing facility at the London hub is not for passengers arriving into the UK.
That means it will not have any immediate impact on the UK’s two-week travel quarantine for people arriving from “at risk” countries.
A separate testing facility for arrivals at Heathrow was set up over the summer but it has not been used as the government has not approved testing people on arrival.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “Britain is on the brink of an economic emergency.
“Many other countries are already using testing to keep their borders safe while restarting trade and travel.
“These facilities will make it easier for passengers going to those countries to get a test and have the potential to provide a service for arriving passengers.
“Ultimately, we need a common international standard for pre-departure testing, and we welcome the UK government’s recent announcement that it wants to take a global lead in establishing this.”
“We are talking to the US homeland security and others about it,” he said.
“It is a kind of approach where we can get trials up which can then become a global standard.
“That could involve a series of tests which may involve quarantine before or after flight – or a combination of them both – and ultimately, if the technology is there, no quarantine at all in return for a perhaps daily rapid test.”
The new initiative at Heathrow coincides with the introduction of a ‘health passport’, which will be tested on a United Airlines flight between Heathrow and Newark for the first time on Wednesday.
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