A plan to introduce Covid-19 testing for international arrivals in an effort to cut the 14-day quarantine period is due to be unveiled, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has indicated.
The beleaguered aviation industry had been lobbying for a two-test system, whereby travellers are tested at an airport on arrival from at-risk countries and again five or eight days later – with negative results allowing them to leave isolation earlier.
However, the Guardian understands that the UK government is considering overlooking tests at airports, instead opting for a single test for travellers after a period of isolation shorter than the current two-week requirement.
Another option on the table is a different type of two-test approach that would see international passengers tested prior to departure in the country they are travelling from and again several days after arriving.
Speaking at the Conservative party conference on Monday, Shapps stressed that a period of quarantine would still be required for travellers arriving from countries outside of the travel corridor but that it could be limited with testing.
Without giving specific details about the government’s plan, he explained it would be more complicated than just testing people as they arrived at airports, as that would pick up only about 7% of asymptomatic cases.
“The next stage is to enable testing, which people sometimes wrongly think is a very straightforward thing – ‘Why don’t you just test people at the airport? If you know they’re clear, let people in, job done,’” Shapps said.
“The answer is that in someone who is asymptomatic, not displaying any symptoms, that won’t find a very large proportion of cases. In fact the studies show that if you check somebody on the first day that they arrive, you will probably just find 7% of people who actually do have the virus.
“So we have got to be a bit smarter than that. The way to do that is to still have a period of quarantine but also test and be able to release people. I will be saying more about that shortly.”
In an earlier interview with the i newspaper, Shapps highlighted that any testing for international arrivals must be done privately. “If you are a holidaymaker you don’t want to be taking up an NHS test because you have flown somewhere, which is a discretionary thing to do,” he said.
“Anything that we do with testing at airports or testing a week later must be done through private capacity.”
Stephen Barclay, the chief secretary to the Treasury, told the Tory conference on Saturday that he was expecting Shapps and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to say more about the issue in the “coming days”.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Work is ongoing with clinicians and health experts on the practicalities of using testing to reduce the self-isolation period for international arrivals. The secretary of state has made clear there will be an announcement on this shortly.”
It comes after Turkey and Poland were removed from the UK’s travel corridor list on Saturday, with Shapps also announcing that, from last Friday, people arriving from abroad who breach Covid-19 quarantine restrictions in England face tougher fines of up to £10,000.
A testing facility for international arrivals readied for use in August at Heathrow may not end up being used, depending on what plan the government opts for, the airport’s chief executive said last week.
“We don’t know whether testing at the airport will end up being part of the solution,” John Holland-Kaye told Travel Weekly.
“We know that the government isn’t comfortable with just a single test on arrival to give them confidence that people aren’t carrying Covid when they come into the country. And that’s because if you’ve only just contracted the disease you may not show up on a PCR test and that’s why they prefer to have a period of quarantine … But it may well be the case that those testing facilities at the airport are needed, in which case we’re ready to go quickly once the government says yes.”