A pilot of scheme of Covid-19 testing at Heathrow is being touted as a “potential alternative” to the need to quarantine for 14 days on arrival from high risk countries such as the US.
The ‘test-on-arrival’ procedure will enable passengers to be checked for the virus when landing at the London hub and know just hours later if they have tested positive.
The scheme could provide a solution to those travelling from places not included on last week’s list of countries exempt from quarantine such as the US which is responsible for 11% of inbound visits to the UK.
But this depends on the government also adding people testing negative during the process to its list of exemptions.
The £150 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) based swab tests would be administered in a clinic airside at the airport.
The companies behind the scheme are ground handler Swissport and Collinson Group, which provides medical and security services.
They believe tests “can build on the first step that was made with the traffic light system and help travel sector recovery by enabling even more people to travel from ‘red’ countries where quarantine is still required – while maintaining public confidence around preventing the spread of the virus.”
The pilot of the new testing procedure would be available as a private service to anyone with a flight landing in Heathrow Terminal 2.
Passengers will need to set up an account and book their test online, before beginning their journey to the UK.
The tests will be carried out by Collinson nurses in a Swissport facility on arrival at the airport.
During the appointment, a swab will be taken for testing, which is then sent to a Collinson biotech lab near Heathrow, using the same transportation protocols the NHS uses for home swab tests.
The tests are claimed to be sensitive enough to detect Covid-19 particles, even when a passenger has displayed no symptoms.
If travelling from a country where quarantine is still required, passengers will be asked to continue from Heathrow to the address they provided at the time of booking, while they await their test results, which they will receive within 24 hours.
The long-term ambition is for passengers to be free to leave quarantine measures when given the all-clear if this arrivals testing model is added by the government as an additional exemption to the quarantine policy.
“In the less likely event that the test comes back positive, they’ll be asked to abide by isolation requirements, staying at their given quarantine address for the next 14 days,” a statement from the companies said.
More than 20 destinations, including Austria, Iceland, Jersey, Madeira, Thailand, Singapore, Barbados, Jamaica and Japan, have already introduced airport tests that can allow some passengers to avoid quarantine if they are negative for Covid-19.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps told MPs that he was considering introducing testing at airports and promised an update by the next review of the quarantine regulations at the end of July.
“We do believe it is important to be able to provide international standards that will include specific types of testing,” he said.
Sources told The Telegraph that testing was the next step after agreeing 74 “low risk” countries and destinations where returning holidaymakers and passengers could enter the UK without the 14-day quarantine.
Collinson and Swissport are also exploring options to work with other airports and governments worldwide in order to offer the tests to outbound passengers, reducing the need for people leaving the UK to quarantine in other countries.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “The government made a significant step forward last week by removing quarantine for visitors from many countries, but we still need a solution that safely allows passengers to travel to and from higher risk countries.
“This trial with Swissport and Collinson will provide a much-needed alternative to quarantine for those arriving passengers and should add further momentum to the government’s push for common international standards which are needed for the resumption of global travel.”
Collinson joint chief executive David Evans said: “We launched the tests to help get the travel ecosystem moving again, using science to reassure the public it’s safe to do so.
“PCR testing is the gold standard of Covid-19 testing, used by the NHS and Public Health England, as it is able to detect the virus even when someone is asymptomatic.
“We have seen the results of clinical trials using the same testing protocol at other European airports. In these trials, travellers were tested on arrival and again five days later. They showed zero cases of someone testing negative in the first instance and then positive in the second, proving the sensitivity of the tests when carried out on arrival.
“We’re looking forward to working with Heathrow to pilot this science-led approach. Together, we can provide a pioneering solution that will get the travel and aviation sector back on its feet, which will be a massive boost for the UK’s economy.”
Swissport chief commercial officer Richard Cawthra added: “Test-on-arrival perfectly complements last week’s list of countries exempt from quarantine.
“Should the government also grant the exemption we are seeking, travellers could go to countries beyond those on the list with confidence, knowing that they would not face a quarantine upon landing in the UK as long as they test negative.
“This would not only stimulate inbound and outbound tourism and business travel in the UK, helping the economy and the travel sector back on their feet, but it would also safeguard the success of reopening up routes with the countries on the list.
“For example, if a country’s status was changed to ‘red’, testing would allow the government to keep the route open with quarantine reintroduced unless they test negative.
“That is why this testing pilot with Heathrow is so vital – it’ll allow for more flexibility with how people can travel, while keeping the public safe.”