Virgin Atlantic CCO: Pre-departure Covid testing ‘must be the ultimate goal’

Virgin Atlantic’s chief commercial officer expects the government’s taskforce to recommend Covid tests after five days, but says pre-departure testing must be the “ultimate goal” to remove the need for self-isolation.

Juha Jarvinen said he appreciated the need for a step-by-step approach, and that real-time data accumulated when travel resumes would help reduce restrictions over time.

The government’s Global Travel Taskforce is yet to report to prime minster Boris Johnson on its findings, but is expected to implement a Covid testing regime that would halve quarantine from 14 to seven days, with a PCR test taken after five days.

“We have been challenging the government,” said Jarvinen. “We believe the ultimate goal should be pre-departure testing. It’s the most effective way. People who travel will know before they depart that they don’t have Covid-19, and then will have a second test on arrival.”

Speaking to Travel Weekly after Virgin Atlantic Holidays announced its programme of ‘quarantine free’ Caribbean holidays, Jarvinen insisted the need to self-isolate on return was the main deterrent stopping people booking travel plans.

He said reports that the government was moving forward with plans to reduce quarantine were “great” but questioned whether travellers were truly compliant to the current measures.

Tests after five days are “definitely better” than the 14-day self-isolation, said Jarvinen while insisting that airlines need a testing scheme that will work long-term because rolling out a vaccine will still take months.

“We will start generating data,” he added. “We need these real-time examples. We need data. We hope that pretty soon after five-day [testing regimes are implemented] they will move to pre-departure testing.

“The whole industry is aligned on it. But we all understand that we need to start generating real-time data.”

Jarvinen said airlines were “exploring the options” of using rapid Covid tests as opposed to the government-standard PCR tests, which require lab analysis. Virgin is using quicker antigen tests on its crew, for example, and said LAMP tests and lateral flow tests had shown “extremely high reliability”.

Virgin’s move to offer quarantine-free holidays in the Caribbean is part of the airline’s Covid recovery plan, as destinations in the region have kept relatively low infection rates.

Jarvinen said the airline was also focused on the visiting friends and relatives (VFR) market, which he expects to be among the first sub-sectors to return. Virgin has increased flights to India and added services to Pakistan.

But he admitted Virgin “needs the US to open” to recover fully, as the country accounts for 70% of its network in normal times. He added: “We’re confident it’s going to happen at some point in Q1, hopefully early. There is positive dialogue between the US and UK governments.”

Jarvinen said Virgin and other airlines were happy to help governments with data to be “proactive” in helping reopen flight networks. And he said it was important for the UK government to get its aviation sector moving ahead of its departure from the European Union.

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