Shapps says UK is examining an airport testing regime
Transport secretary Grant Shapps on Friday outlined how the UK could eventually move to testing passengers for coronavirus when they arrive at British airports, but stressed it would not eliminate the need for people to quarantine.
The government is under mounting pressure from airlines and travel companies, which are warning of further rounds of job losses in their sectors unless the UK’s quarantine rules are ditched.
Mr Shapps said the government was considering how a new testing regime might work at the UK’s borders, saying it could cut the time people have to self-isolate from 14 days to as few as seven.
The government is examining a two-test system under which passengers can end self-isolation if their results come back negative twice: once upon landing and then again about a week later.
But Mr Shapps did not set out a timetable for its introduction and dismissed the idea that single tests providing fast results could provide a “silver bullet” that would eliminate quarantine altogether for people entering the UK from countries with high levels of the virus.
“You probably have to have some kind of quarantine period here, perhaps seven or eight days, maybe a test then,” he told SKYCHURP News. “But these are the things we’re working through at the moment.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson meanwhile said he did not want to abandon the quarantine system: “It has got to be an important part of our repertoire, of our toolbox, in fighting Covid.”
Mr Johnson said that a single-test system — as opposed to a two-test system involving a shorter quarantine — could create a “false sense of confidence” among the travelling public.
Aviation executives are increasingly frustrated at the government’s refusal to drop the quarantine system.
Several airport and airline bosses said they thought the Department for Transport was sympathetic to their plight, but that any move towards a testing regime at the UK’s borders was being blocked by other parts of government.
One said the current impasse was a “shitshow” that was grinding the industry into new rounds of job losses as passenger numbers remained stubbornly low.
“It is mistaken to think an economic recovery can really take off with closed borders,” said Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive Shai Weiss.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents the sector, said the industry was “truly in the danger zone”.
Airline and airport executives accept that testing passengers on arrival in the UK will not remove the need for quarantine.
Instead they hope to shorten it by using the sort of two-test system now under consideration by the government.
However, some in the aviation industry want the UK to adopt Germany’s current approach to airport testing.
Passengers entering Germany from countries deemed high-risk take tests upon arrival, which provide results within 24 hours.
But the German government is on the brink of changing the system — against the wishes of airlines — to a mandatory five days of quarantine, after which tests would be done that could bring an end to self-isolation.
Mr Shapps on Friday admitted the UK’s quarantine arrangements were “confusing” the public after the British government and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales split over imposing restrictions on people returning from certain countries judged high risk.
On Thursday the Scottish and Welsh governments announced that travellers returning from Portugal would have to self-isolate for 14 days. But no restrictions were imposed in England or Northern Ireland.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
The Scottish government said on Wednesday that travellers returning from Greece would have to self-isolate for two weeks, and the Welsh administration said some of the country’s islands would be affected by quarantine rules. No restrictions were proposed in England or Northern Ireland.
Mr Shapps accused the Scottish government of “jumping the gun” by announcing restrictions on Greece, thwarting his attempts to co-ordinate action across the UK.
The self-isolation rules were introduced in June, but the often weekly addition and removal of countries deemed to be high risk has been dubbed “quarantine roulette” by travel industry executives.
While the level of infections is seen as the main factor for adding countries to the UK’s quarantine list — with 20 cases per 100,000 a key threshold — ministers are also taking other issues into consideration.