How will Heathrow’s travel tests work, and where will they unlock?

Passengers flying from Heathrow to Hong Kong and Italy now have the option of paying for a pre check-in rapid Covid-19 test. 

Launched today, the private test costs £80 and returns results within an hour. The idea is to simplify travel to the increasing number of destinations that require UK arrivals to present evidence of a recent negative test result. The move marks the first time coronavirus airport testing has been available in the UK.

Collinson, the medical and security assistance company running the new service, is employing Lamp (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification) tests, which, unlike the PCR tests used by the NHS, do not need to be sent to a laboratory. Concerns have been raised that these rapid tests are not as sensitive as lab-analysed swabs and some countries, including Cyprus, the Bahamas and Bermuda, currently only accept PCR results.

However, after a summer of overloaded labs and instances of holidaymakers not receiving results in time to travel, the initiative promises a more straightforward option for those travelling to destinations that accept speedy tests such as Italy and Hong Kong. The hope is that the service will be expanded, as more countries introduce test requirements for arrivals. It is worth noting that passengers travelling to Italy will still be required to quarantine on return to the UK. Meanwhile, Hong Kong continues to only allow residents to enter, who must also take a test on arrival and quarantine for 14 days.

The nose and throat swab tests will be conducted by Collinson nurses at new facilities inside Heathrow Terminals 2 and 5, before being processed onsite by staff from one of the company’s biotech partners, Prenetics. Outbound travellers must book the test online before going to the airport and will be advised on timings by the airlines they are flying with. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific are the first carriers to offer the test to passengers. 

David Evans, joint CEO at Collinson, said: “With countries around the world adding the UK to their list of ‘high risk’ countries, we need to find a way to work with governments, leading travel brands and other commercial entities to safely open up travel out of the UK.”

“Government restrictions around the world will continue to fluctuate, but we, with our medical services and biotech partner network, have the capability to flex our offering to bespoke country needs, ensuring that, whatever the restriction, we can provide a way to keep travel moving, safely, without negatively impacting UK public testing capacity.”

Heathrow CEO, John Holland-Kaye, added: “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.”

The news follows continued calls from the travel industry for the Government to introduce a robust airport testing system that provides a safe alternative to the existing 14-day quarantine. Notably, together with logistics firm Swissport, Collinson created a test-on-arrival facility at Heathrow back in August, but it is still yet to gain Government approval for use and remains empty. Meanwhile, other countries such as Italy and Germany have introduced airport testing services for arriving passengers.

There are some signs that action is finally being taken. Yesterday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps expanded on plans for a “test and release” system, which could cut quarantine time to seven days, if travellers agree to pay for a test after a period of isolation. If it goes ahead, the scheme should be in place by December 1.

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