UK airports angry at delay introducing test to escape Covid quarantine

UK government announces taskforce to investigate coronavirus testing for arrivals

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 22: Travellers exit Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 on August 22, 2020 in London, England. As of Saturday morning at 4am, travellers arriving in England from Austria, Croatia, and Trinidad and Tobago were required to quarantine themselves for 14 days. At the same time, travellers from Portugal were no longer required to quarantine. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
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The British aviation industry has been left underwhelmed by UK government plans to form a taskforce to explore coronavirus testing at international arrivals.

As other nations have forged ahead with airport testing to ease quarantine restrictions that have devastated the aviation industry, British companies have been told they will have to wait longer as a government taskforce explores options for airports.

David Evans, chief executive officer at Collinson, told the BBC his response was one of disappointment.

“My first reaction was obviously one of perhaps disappointment, I think the industry was hoping for something a little bit more definitive,” the head of the airport lounge company said.

The UK government, which has previously resisted tests, on Wednesday announced the creation of a travel taskforce to evaluate the idea and other measures to support the travel sector.

Key amongst their considerations will be the implementation of an airport arrivals testing regime.

"The overall aim of the taskforce will be to consider what steps the government can take to enable the safe and sustainable recovery of international travel," Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.

Mr Shapps said Britain would co-operate with other countries to develop a global approach.

Airlines have been pleading for months for a testing regime that could open up more destinations and give passengers increased certainty about flying. At present, passengers landing in the UK have to quarantine themselves for two weeks if arriving from a high-risk country.

In a joint statement, Heathrow Airport, Manchester Airports Group, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic urged a swift response. “We support the decision to opt for a single-test, private sector-led, passenger-funded approach that does not impact on the NHS in any way,” the statement said.

“But travellers need a firm commitment that a comprehensive testing regime will be implemented in early November. A test on day five, which the government’s own conservative evidence said would be ‘highly effective’ and which they’re already doing in Germany, should be the starting point.”

Britain’s biggest airport group, Manchester Airports Group (MAG), on Wednesday announced plans to axe 900 jobs, specifically citing a lack of progress on testing.

“The absence of dedicated support for the aviation sector, coupled with a lack of progress in introducing testing for UK passengers to date, has continued to undermine consumer confidence in air travel for next year," the group said in a statement.

The taskforce is reportedly exploring whether travellers should just be tested once – five or eight days after arriving from high-risk countries – to allow them to cut down the existing 14-day isolation period.

FILE PHOTO: An aircraft comes in to land at Heathrow Airport in west London April 21, 2010. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

Another option under consideration is a regime whereby travellers take a test 48 hours before their arrival in the UK followed by a test five days later.

Mr Evans made it clear he preferred a two-test system in the UK, as was initially proposed by the aviation industry.

“Other countries that have done a testing on arrival have often put in a two-test scenario, testing on arrival and then several days later. We still believe that's the first approach that we should take to test on arrival and then test several days later," he said.

The taskforce will report back by early November.

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland maintain their own lists, adding to the complexity and leading many customers to avoid planes altogether.

In July, Britain changed its policy from a blanket quarantine to one that established "travel corridors" to countries with low infection rates.

But with cases on the rise in several places, the list of countries on the quarantine exemption list is dwindling, and the travel industry has warned it faces an existential crisis unless the policy is changed again.

Mr Shapps defended the current system while acknowledging the potential for collaboration with the aviation industry to minimise quarantine.

“The current measures at the border have saved lives,” Mr Shapps said.

“Our understanding of the science now means we can intensify efforts to develop options for a testing regime and help reinvigorate our world-leading travel sector.”