In Depth

Could airport coronavirus testing reduce quarantines?

Transport secretary downplays possibility of single tests to bypass quarantine

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has hinted that the UK may grant travel industry leaders their wish and introduce Covid-19 testing at UK borders to replace two-week quarantines.

A number of other countries, including Austria, have adopted a single-test scheme which, if implemented in the UK, would let new arrivals to the country book a swab test - with results given within seven hours - in order to bypass the lengthy quarantines. 

The plan has been backed by Heathrow’s chief executive, who says the airport could have a testing system up and running in a fortnight

But Shapps on Friday morning dismissed the idea of a single-test system, instead floating the idea of a “dual-testing system - an initial test followed by a second several days later”, The Times reports.

“I want to see systems in place to do that kind of thing,” Shapps said. “But you’ve also got to be sure that you’re testing the right person on that second time round because are you going to just send the kit to the house or are you going to require the person to perhaps drive to a test centre?

“People say why don’t you just test at the airport?” he added. “Well, because it wouldn’t provide the results and you’ve then got to make sure the second test goes to the right person.”

He clarified that the government would “keep reviewing it” as an option.

Travel bosses are desperate for “a state-backed programme of Covid-19 tests at the border, minutes after passengers arrive, allowing quarantine-free entry to Britain”, says The Times.

But their wish is unlikely to be granted.

“Ministers are unconvinced and seem to be holding out for delayed testing, potentially conducted at least a week after arrival,” the newspaper reports. This would allow time for infections that occur during the return journey to incubate.

Scientific modelling suggests that “testing travellers a week after their arrival in the UK could catch 94% of coronavirus cases and halve quarantine times”, The Guardian reports.

The paper cites research conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which also found that “a test on day five with release on day six results in a median 88% reduction in transmission”.

However, says The Times, experts at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the US found that tests remain unreliable for several days after exposure to Covid-19.

“On the first day after a person was exposed to the virus the chance of a false negative was found to be 100%,” the paper reports. “On day four it was about 67%. Even on day five the chance of a false negative was still about 38%.”

Such statistics indicate that airport testing is “not useless but it’s not far off”, a government source told The Guardian.

Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Reading University, told the paper that “quarantine could potentially be shortened by giving people tests every other day while they self-isolated, and releasing them from quarantine when they tested negative three times in a row”.

Given that tests cost about £150 each, the rule change would not come cheap.

Nevertheless, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has called on the government to abandon its blanket approach to high-risk countries.

“I think you need a smarter set of quarantine measures at the airport,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I’ve suggested this test, trace and isolate regime but you can also have temperature checking and other things. You look at a range of measures.”

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