The government will be flexible on the type of Covid tests certified for use in the ‘test and release’ system to be recommended by its Global Travel Taskforce, meaning cheaper, quicker tests may be possible.
The taskforce held a first meeting with industry leaders last week and afterwards transport secretary Grant Shapps made clear the speed at which a Covid-test regime is set up will depend on private test providers.
Public Health England will set standards for providers to meet, meaning rapid ‘point of care’ tests which are cheaper and can provide results in 30 minutes are not ruled out.
It remains to be seen whether rapid tests are certified for immediate use. NHS Covid tests require lab analysis and take up to 48 hours.
Addressing an Airlines 2050 summit on Monday, Shapps said: “We’ve agreed on a regime based on a single test a week after arrival. We’ve worked through all the problems before setting up the taskforce.
“Public Health England will set a quality test. It’s up to the private sector to meet that. I’m hopeful it will happen quickly, but I don’t want to overpromise. The testing sector has to deliver capacity.”
Pressed to confirm testing would be ready by December 1, Shapps said: “We’re talking to more than a dozen providers.
“As long as the capacity is there, and they tell us it is, I’m hopeful.”
But he insisted: “We can’t have travel being responsible for further outbreaks.
“This is a domestic regime. The second part is an international regime working with the International Civil Aviation Organisation. On the domestic side, the work of the taskforce will go to the prime minister in early November and we’ll hear when it will be implemented.”
Department for Transport aviation director Rannia Leontaridi said the taskforce meeting with industry leaders “set the scene”.
Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade said: “The question is what will move the needle in getting people booking? We don’t think seven days is going to have the impact we want.”
However Dale Keller, chief executive of the UK Board of Airline Representatives, said rapid tests could “move the goalposts”.
“What’s important is to have this report to the PM on time,” he said.
Medical services firm Collinson began offering rapid tests at Heathrow from Tuesday to passengers flying to Italy or Hong Kong at a cost of £80.
The results are recognised in Hong Kong, with a negative test excusing a traveller from quarantine on arrival.
However, there was confusion as to whether Italy would recognise the test results and the tests for travellers to Italy were almost immediately withdrawn.
Italy was removed from the UK’s travel corridors list from 4am on Sunday, leaving travel firms with few remaining destinations to sell, and travellers returning from Italy would in any case have to quarantine for 14 days.
Heathrow was also due to see the trial of a Covid-19 ‘health passport’, CommonPass, on Wednesday among passengers on a United Airlines flight to New York.
Leontaridi described the CommonPass trial as “exciting”, saying: “This is the kind of stuff the rest of the taskforce will be considering.”