London's Heathrow has warned that the return of Covid-19 testing at the airport could have a detrimental effect on the recovery of passenger numbers and the aviation sector in general.
Releasing its Christmas business update, Heathrow said it was “concerned that the recovery of the aviation sector, which is critical to the economy, could be set back by the reintroduction of testing for travellers in the UK and elsewhere in response to increasing Covid levels in China, even though governments acknowledge there is no scientific basis for doing so”.
Covid-19 tests were reintroduced at Heathrow this week for selected flights from China by the UK Health Security Agency to detect potential new variants.
The programme offers PCR tests to up to 20 per cent of arrivals from selected flights. Anyone offered a test is encouraged to take it, though this screening is not critical for entry, the agency said.
“Testing passengers on arrival from China will allow UKHSA to rapidly detect any potential new variants that have not yet been picked up through international surveillance,” said Prof Susan Hopkins, the agency's Chief Medical Adviser.
“The evidence so far suggests that the recent rise in cases in China is due to low natural immunity and low vaccine uptake, but this extra data will allow us to keep the situation under review,” she added.
Britain's government had already announced that passengers flying from mainland China to England would need to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken no more than two days before departure, and that airlines were required to check that all people boarding flights in China have negative test results.
The World Health Organisation said on Monday that passengers on long-haul flights should wear face masks, and urged European countries to increase their Covid monitoring.
“A threat could come from a new variant of concern anywhere, anytime,” said Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe.
Passenger numbers take off
Heathrow said the Christmas period was the busiest for the airport since 2019, with more than 5.9 million passengers travelling in December.
The figures added to a picture of strong recovery for Heathrow in 2022. Over the course of last year, 61.6 million passengers passed through Heathrow, 42.2 million more than in 2021. This was the highest increase in passenger numbers of any airport in Europe.
Last year “ended on a high with our busiest Christmas in three years and a smooth and efficient service for passengers, thanks to the hard work of our colleagues and close planning with airlines, their ground handlers and Border Force,” said Heathrow chief executive, John Holland-Kaye.
About 1,000 Border Force staff, who check passengers' passports on arrival, went on strike last month, but most of the affected UK airports did not report any disruption, not least because members of the military were drafted into some of the roles.
Heathrow said 92 per cent of passengers passed through security in under 10 minutes during the Christmas peak, and arriving travellers reported a “friendly and efficient journey through immigration in spite of industrial action”.