A decision on plans to introduce Covid-19 testing for international arrivals to reduce quarantine times will only come next month at the earliest, with Downing Street instead setting up a global travel task force to review the proposals, according to the Guardian.
After months of lobbying from the besieged aviation industry, which was crippled by two-week quarantine restrictions, an announcement indicating whether tests for arrivals from at-risk countries would be introduced by the UK government was widely expected this week.
The Transport Secretary, Grant shapps, had indicated an imminent change, telling Monday at the virtual conference of the Conservative party that he would say more shortly.
However, in a blow to the aviation industry, rather than announcing the start of testing for international arrivals, the Guardian learned that the government instead planned to announce the launch of the task force – co-chaired by Shapps and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock – who was put in place at the behest of Boris Johnson.
An announcement is expected Thursday but could arrive earlier.
Part of his mandate, which broadly examines ways to reinvigorate overseas travel, will be to explore options to implement a testing regime for international arrivals to reduce quarantine times by 14 days. He is not expected to report until mid-November, which means that a decision on testing to reduce quarantine times would not be made until next month at the earliest.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Transport insisted there was no delay in the plans, adding: “As we have made clear, work is underway with clinicians and experts from health on the practicalities of using the tests to reduce the period of self-isolation for international arrivals. “
In recent weeks, cabinet ministers have reportedly considered whether travelers should be tested once, five or eight days after arriving from countries at risk, allowing them to emerge from isolation earlier than the current requirement 14 days. Both options were reportedly submitted by officials in mid-September to the Covid-19 operations committee chaired by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove.
Either move would mean that the aviation industry’s initial proposals for a two-test system – in which travelers are tested at the airport upon arrival from countries at risk and again five or eight days later – with negative results allowing them to escape isolation sooner – would be overlooked in favor of a single test approach.
Another option submitted to the government involved travelers taking a test 48 hours before leaving an at-risk country, followed by a test on the fifth day after arrival, also allowing them to emerge from isolation earlier.
Shapps told the Conservative Party conference on Monday, “The next step is to allow testing, which people sometimes mistakenly think is a very simple thing -” Why don’t you just test people at the airport? If you know they’re clear, let people in, the job is done.
“The answer is that in an asymptomatic person, not showing any symptoms, this will not find a very large proportion of cases. In fact, studies show that if you check someone on the first day they arrive, you will likely only find 7% of people who actually have the virus.
“So we have to be a little smarter than that. The way to do that is to still have a quarantine period but also to test and be able to release people. I will say more about this shortly.
Shapps also stressed that any testing for international arrivals must be paid for privately. “If you are a vacationer you don’t want to take an NHS test because you got on a plane somewhere which is a discretionary thing to do,” he told i newspaper. “Anything we do with testing at airports or testing a week later has to be done through private capacity.”
General quarantine rules came into effect in early June, forcing international arrivals and returning passengers to spend 14 days in self-isolation.
Exemptions were introduced a month later with the creation of “travel corridors” for destinations with low Covid-19 rates. However, flights and travel have been plunged into chaos by sudden changes in the status of major tourist destinations, such as Spain and France, during the summer season. Since last Friday, people arriving from abroad who violate Covid-19 quarantine restrictions in England have faced tougher fines of up to £ 10,000.
The aviation industry has been largely pushed back in calls for the government for a special package of aid for the sector. The Treasury limited its aid to the broader leave scheme and Bank of England Covid-19 loans, while tens of thousands of jobs have been lost at airlines and airports.
Ministers announced the creation of a special aviation “restart, recovery and engagement unit” in early May, but the Commons transport select committee expressed concern over the lack of pace or detail of any action. Five weeks ago, the government responded that the unit would report in the fall.