Heathrow launches pre-departure testing trial

Heathrow is working with four transatlantic carriers on a trial of pre-departure Covid testing which it hopes will pave the way for the method to be accepted worldwide.

The industry-funded study is being commissioned in a bid to resume international aviation routes using “real-world data” from American Airlines, British Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.

Using the already-installed Collinson and Swissport testing facilities in terminals two and five, the study hopes to demonstrate pre-departure testing is a safe and effective alternative to quarantine and travel restrictions.

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The final report will be shared with governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

The group study follows the UK government’s ‘Test to release’ scheme, announced last week, which – from December 15 – will give passengers the option to reduce their quarantine period from 14 days to five, providing they test negative for the virus.

Heathrow will have access to anonymised testing data generated by each of the separate pre-departure trials being conducted by the airlines. Each trial is unique to each airline, but Heathow said the variations will provide “richer and more diverse data” to “strengthen the study’s conclusions”.

It said the number and scale of the carriers involved makes this the largest pre-departures study in the UK. Oxera and Edge Health, which have worked on previous Covid testing studies, will author the study.

Tests as part of the trials will be free to passengers and the study is expected to assess the effectiveness of PCR tests, LAMP and Lateral Flow antigen devices. All participants must abide by government guidelines at the time of travel, so must self-isolate for 14 days, or until they have received a negative test taken on day five, from December 15.

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “These trials will build on the government’s initial testing strategy, setting a standard for a safer and more comprehensive approach to passenger testing, that we hope will accelerate the return to travel as we once knew it. With Brexit imminent, we need to urgently find the most effective way to restore the UK’s trading network and facilitate safe global travel, keeping Britain competitive as it leaves the EU.”

British Airways’ chief executive Sean Doyle, said: “After the welcome news last week that the government is reducing quarantine for travellers to five days, British Airways is pleased to be working closely with the team at Heathrow on trials between the US and London which will seek to demonstrate that a robust pre-departure testing regime will help fully re-open the skies and eliminate the need for quarantine.”

Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic said: “Industry-led trials, like our own London Heathrow-Barbados testing pilot, build on existing evidence that an effective pre-departure testing regime can safely replace quarantine. Through close collaboration, trial results will add to the body of real-world evidence being aggregated by Heathrow in this landmark study.

“We call on UK government to move swiftly towards this model, in order to open up the skies, replace quarantine and boost consumer confidence. It will allow free movement of people and goods to resume, supporting the UK’s economic recovery and protecting more than 500,000 jobs reliant on aviation. We hope that testing will also lead the way for US borders to open to UK travellers.”

United Airlines’ senior vice president and chief customer officer, Toby Enqvist, said: “We welcome this collaboration with Heathrow that demonstrates the value of pre-departure testing and the role it plays in opening international travel.”

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