Airport boss outlines 'two stage testing' plan to cut quarantine times and save holiday season

Video report by Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt

Heathrow Airport's boss has outlined a plan to test arrivals at UK airports in order to cut quarantine times by several days, potentially unlocking hundreds of holiday destinations.

John Holland-Kaye said testing at his airport could be “up and running” within a fortnight after Boris Johnson warned further European nations could follow Spain and lose their exempted status amid signs of a “second wave” of Covid-19.

He believes his plan for a "two stage testing process" could reduce the 14 self-isolation period and save this year's tourism season.

How the testing plan could work

His idea would see passengers tested on arrival at airports before being tested again a "five or eight" days into their quarantine to confirm they are not infected with the virus.

A second test could allow the quarantine periods to be shortened by a number of days under the proposal.

Mr Holland-Kaye told ITV News his plan "gives a very high level of confidence as to whether they'd had the disease or not".

He said he wants to find away to unlock tourism to 'red countries' - places the government says people should not travel due to coronavirus rates there.

"Even in red countries, the vast majority of people do not have Covid, we just need to make sure that we have checked the people coming into this country are those the ones that don't have Covid.

"If they are clear, they should be able to come out of quarantine earlier that would normally be the case."

"Aviation has always led the UK economy out of recession," he said, "we can only do so again if we have an aviation sector."

But Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has rejected testing on arrivals as a solution for international travel, saying the idea isn't a "silver bullet".

He said ministers are "keeping all options under review" regarding quarantines, but said "the challenge with testing is it isn't a silver bullet".

"You can be tested and not show positive when you step off that plane and then subsequently get the disease," he said.

Mr Holland-Kaye told ITV News his airport has already lost "over a £1 billion" in revenue and said the only way the UK can "bounce back from this crisis" is to have a high capacity aviation sector.

"If we lose our aviation capacity that will reduce our capacity for the UK economy to bounce back from this crisis," he said.

He says Heathrow "will survive" but that's "not the case" for many other businesses in the sector

The government wants to "minimise the disruption people are facing" but with cases of coronavirus "rising rapidly globally", Mr Dowden said the priority must be keeping it "under control" in the UK.

"That could be at risk if we were to import cases from other countries where there are rapidly rising infections," he added.

The Prime Minister triggered a diplomatic row with Spain by reimposing a warning against all but essential travel to the country and insisting travellers arriving in the UK from there spend 14 days in quarantine.

But he said ministers were looking at ways to mitigate the impact amid suggestions testing could be used to cut the time spent in isolation for those arriving from nations not exempted from the quarantine.

Government advisers have warned it can take a number of days from infection before tests return a positive result, meaning testing negative on arrival does not mean the passenger will not develop symptoms later on.

But Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care are understood to have spoken with travel assistance company Collinson to understand the proposed testing pilot it is developing with Heathrow.

Preliminary modelling from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested 94% of cases would be detected if the quarantine period was cut to eight days and passengers tested negative on the seventh.

Amid criticism from Spain for including lower risk regions in the quarantine restrictions, transport minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton said ways to impose more targeted restrictions were being examined.

“For the time being, we are taking the approach by country for border measures, but it is the case that it could be that we put them in place for regions in the future,” she told the House of Lords.

On Tuesday, Mr Johnson insisted the Government would not hesitate to act if flare-ups of coronavirus occurred in other destinations.

“I’m afraid you are starting to see in some places the signs of a second wave of the pandemic,” he warned.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has described the restrictions on travel to the country as an “error”.

Passengers at Birmingham Airport Credit: Jacob King/PA

He pointed out that the upsurge in coronavirus cases is focused in two regions, Catalonia and Aragon, adding: “In most of Spain, the incidence is very much inferior to even the numbers registered in the United Kingdom.”

Madrid had been urging the UK to exclude the Canaries and Balearics – which include popular tourist resorts on Ibiza, Majorca and Menorca – from its quarantine requirements.

But instead, official travel advice was tightened to bring the islands in line with the Spanish mainland.

Britons make up over a fifth of foreign visitors to Spain, which relies heavily on tourism, and Madrid has said the UK Government gave it no warning that the quarantine move was coming over the weekend.

Labour accused ministers of a “chaotic” response and called for a flexible approach for struggling businesses to ensure that public health measures such as the change in quarantine rules for people returning from Spain do not lead to mass job losses.

Portugal, like Spain, has reacted angrily at being included on the UK's quarantine list.

Figures show Portugal’s current rate of infection is 32.7 per 100,000 people - higher than the UK’s 14 per 100,000.

The Portuguese ambassador to the UK, Manuel Lobo Antunes, told ITV News: "What's interesting is that while now most countries are now going up in terms of cases, Portugal is coming down in the number of cases, it's decreasing and that's very interesting.

Portugal's ambassador to UK calls for 'coordinated' coronavirus international travel plan

“What we've always said and what my government has always said is we should try and preserve as much as possible free movement of people within Europe."

He called on countries to take a more "coordinated" approach to international travel during the coronavirus pandemic, adding it would help reduce the "chaotic situation" many find themselves in.

Mr Antunes said: "A system where every country is adopting its own measures just creates anxiety, confusion, lack of transparency. It's bad for consumers, it's bad for travellers but it's also bad for economic agents. So our main preference is free movement of people, if this is not possible, lets coordinate ourselves in a common response to the problems."