The UK’s first airport testing facility for outbound travellers opens today at Heathrow – in what the airport, and airlines, hope will be a first step into the future of flying.
They believe that testing passengers before travel will both boost confidence about stepping aboard aircraft, and gradually reduce or eliminate quarantine on arrival.
But what could it mean for your travels?
Here are the key questions and answers.
What's happening at Heathrow?
Four months after Heathrow and its partners, Swissport and Collinson, set up coronavirus testing facilities at Britain’s busiest airport, they are finally to be used by travellers.
Originally the testing centres were aimed at arriving passengers, but the UK government has not given a go-ahead for this to happen.
Instead, centres in Terminals 2 and 5 will charge departing passengers £80 for a “LAMP” rapid Covid-19 test. Appointments must be booked in advance.
The facilities are aimed at destinations that require pre-departure tests as part of entry requirements, and which accept the LAMP test.
These are swab tests, but unlike the now-familiar PCR tests, they do not require a change in temperature to detect results. So they can be processed on site instead of being sent to a laboratory, making it a quick process – an hour or less.
At present the only such destination is Hong Kong. Other destinations do not currently accept them because they are regarded as less reliable than the PCR test.
The traveller gets a certificate, and that can be shown to officials in order to be allowed on to the flight and into Hong Kong – though the city is currently open only to residents and diplomats, so it will benefit very few people.
It is hoped the price will come down as numbers go up.
Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said: “Many other countries are already using testing to keep their borders safe while restarting trade and travel.
"These facilities will make it easier for passengers going to those countries to get a test and have the potential to provide a service for arriving passengers.
“Ultimately, we need a common international standard for pre-departure testing."
What doors will it open for travellers?
At present very few. The facility is just offering a trickle of travellers the chance to have a slightly smoother journey. But it is a step into the future.
There is increasing agreement worldwide that a test before departure (possibly up to three days ahead) and another test upon arrival (possibly after a few days) is the only way for international air travel to re-start in a significant way.
So don't expect to find this sort of set up in your local airport immediately, but within a few months there could well be a testing centre at check in.
With UK mandatory quarantine disincentivising travel to almost every destination, testing on departure represents a potential option to liberate travellers – but not yet. The Department for Transport (DfT) has made it clear that there is no alternative to the current quarantine rules. Testing prior to travel to the UK or on arrival is regarded by the government as pointless.
The chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, Shai Weiss, said: “As long as the 14 day quarantine remains in place, demand for travel will not return and the UK’s economic recovery, which relies on free flowing trade and tourism, cannot take off. Half a million UK jobs depend on open skies and a fully functioning UK aviation industry.”
On Monday, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said that the government’s Global Travel Taskforce is planning, within weeks, for people arriving in Britain who have to self-isolate for two weeks – which covers almost every country – to be able to pay for a PCR test halfway through which, if negative, will allow them to leave quarantine.
But many people in the travel industry feel that anything that involves a week at home is going to deter holidaymakers almost as much as two weeks. Which is why a lot of faith is being placed in the test-before-departure system.
What is the travel industry hoping for?
International agreement on testing before travel.
It is hoped a system called CommonPass will be trialled between London, New York, and Hong Kong. It is a digital health passport you carry on your phone.
CommonPass travellers take a Covid-19 test at a certified laboratory before departure and upload the results to their mobile phone. They then complete any additional health screening questionnaires required by the destination country.
The CommonPass confirms compliance and generates a QR code, which can be scanned by airline staff and border officials.
Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss said: “We urgently need the introduction of a passenger testing regime here in the UK to safely replace quarantine. The government’s Global Travel Taskforce must act swiftly to replace quarantine with passenger testing in November.”
That timeframe looks extremely unlikely, but the travel industry hopes that some alternative will be available to allow families to fly over Christmas and the New Year.