Testing at airports won’t replace need for travellers to quarantine, says head of NHS Track and Trace

Helen Coffey
·3-min read
Dido Harding heads up the NHS Test and Trace programme
Dido Harding heads up the NHS Test and Trace programme

Covid-19 testing at UK airports is unlikely to replace the need for travellers entering the country to quarantine, the head of NHS Track and Trace has said.

Baroness Dido Harding was asked during a Zoom interview how soon airport testing could be rolled out following the announcement that a new Global Travel Taskforce had been set up to look at the recovery of international travel.

While she didn’t put a timeframe on the project, Baroness Harding stressed that testing was unlikely to be the “silver bullet” that would save the travel industry.

“The task force is set up and looking at it and we’re working very collaboratively with the borders team on that. The slight rider I would put on it is the science,” she said.

“I think testing will be able to help us, but I doubt it will be a silver bullet to fighting the virus and changing the need for us to be very cautious with people travelling from very high-risk environments.”

Even if testing is introduced for all arrivals, Baroness Harding was keen to stress that this wouldn’t necessarily negate the need for travellers to self-isolate.

“A negative test at a point in time only proves that you’re not infectious at this point in time. And if you’ve been travelling from a high-risk environment, I would suspect that the clinicians advise that some form of quarantine is still going to be necessary.”

Airport testing is already being trialled in other countries, such as Italy, while airlines including Lufthansa have also been investing in rapid testing to enable safer international travel.

Here in the UK, Heathrow Airport in particular has been pushing for the introduction of Covid-19 testing for passengers, with the aim of reopening the London-New York route by the end of November.

CEO John Holland-Kaye said that on-site Covid-19 testing for passengers could mean flights are operating again in time for Thanksgiving (26 November).

“I would love to have a New York-London pilot up and running by Thanksgiving,” he told Travel Weekly.

“That seems entirely feasible.”

He added: “There is consensus that testing is the answer to getting people flying, that testing before departure is the better way of doing it and that we need a common international standard.”

Heathrow started rapid Covid testing trials in August, the findings of which are now being shared with and assessed by government officials.

Federation of Small Businesses policy and advocacy chairman Martin McTague, who was also interviewed alongside Baroness Harding, said it was “vital” to get travel up and running again.

“I know this is tricky, I know the science makes it hard to give someone a completely clean bill of health on entry to the country, but when you think of how many businesses around the country depend on travel in one way or another, it is vital that we try and free up that entry into the country,” he said.

“I think it's something that we should be pouring a lot more effort into.”

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