Heathrow Airport, once Europe’s busiest airport, called on Britain to urgently back a passenger testing regime, warning that without one, the country’s strict quarantine rules will stop travel, stall the economy and lead to more job losses.
Heathrow said that to avoid losing a game of global “quarantine roulette”, the government should change its rules to cut quarantine from 14 days to around eight days for passengers who take two tests over the course of a week.
The worst public health crisis since the 1918 influenza outbreak has wrought economic turmoil across the world and just as the travel industry restarted there are now fears of a second wave of shutdowns after Britain hastily imposed a quarantine on travellers from Spain.
“The UK needs a passenger testing regime and fast,” Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said.
“Without it, Britain is just playing a game of quarantine roulette,” he said.
The cost of having a coronavirus test at the airport would be about £150 (€165) per person and the passenger would be expected to pay, Mr Holland-Kaye said.
While he conceded that it was not cheap, he said consumers and business travellers would be prepared to pay, and it would help Britain protect its aviation industry, which has already announced over 20,000 job cuts, and facilitate trade.
“We are an island nation - we cannot cut ourselves off from the world for the foreseeable future,” Mr Holland-Kaye said.
“We’ve got to find a way of keeping people safe from a second wave but also getting the economy going again.”
Quarantine rules are in place for arrivals to Britain from the US, a lucrative market for Heathrow accounting for 20% of its traffic, as well as other countries such as India and Spain.
“It can incubate over a period of time so there’s not a silver bullet of just testing immediately at the border,” British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the BBC.
But Mr Holland-Kaye said the UK government was receptive to Heathrow’s double testing plan, which needs agreement that two tests, one on arrival and one either five or eight days later, can reduce the number of days a person spends quarantining.
“They’ve certainly come alive to that in the last few days following the Spain experience with the realisation that there needs to be an alternative,” he said.
Heathrow said it was trialling testing with companies Swissport and Collinson and the system could be up and running within two weeks.
The test would add a significant cost to the cost of travel, with Heathrow’s biggest operator British Airways selling European tickets from about £50 and tickets to the US from about £400.
The potential extra cost illustrates the challenge to airlines desperate to fill planes and start generating profits again after the pandemic wiped out air travel for months.
Airports are also suffering. Heathrow passenger numbers fell 96% in the second quarter on revenue which was down 85% pushing the airport to a £1.1bn loss for the first six months of the year. Despite the loss, the airport said its finances remained robust.
Meanwhile, travel giant TUI in the UK said it had cancelled holidays to the Balearics and Canary Islands until August 4 after Britain advised against all non-essential travel to the islands due to its assessment of Covid-19 risks in Spain.
The UK guidance brought advice in line with travel advice to mainland Spain. On Saturday Britain said all travellers from Spain would be subject to a 14-day quarantine due to a spike in new coronavirus cases there.
TUI UK has cancelled all holidays to mainland Spain until August 10, but criticised the blanket British policy for the whole of Spain when the outbreaks have been focussed regionally.