Boris Johnson is facing mounting pressure from Tory MPs to introduce coronavirus testing at airports in order to slash the 14 day quarantine period for travellers returning from high risk countries.
Former Cabinet ministers David Davis and Sir Iain Duncan Smith are leading calls for the Government to use border checks to save the ailing travel industry.
Mr Davis said other countries had already set up airport testing and ‘I don’t understand why we haven’t’.
He also said ‘you are as likely to catch the virus on the London Underground back home as you are on the plane or on holiday’.
Sir Iain echoed a similar sentiment as he argued the Government had ‘lost the ability to balance risk’.
Meanwhile, Henry Smith, the Tory chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation Group, said testing at airports could ensure ‘we don’t lose’ the rest of the summer holiday season.
There are believed to be as many as 40 Tory MPs who are now pushing for testing at airports as part of a bid to make foreign travel more feasible amid the current uncertainty.
Their intervention came as travel bosses last night urged Mr Johnson to drop blanket restrictions on entire countries amid fears more nations could join Spain on the UK’s quarantine list.
A coalition of 47 airlines, airports and tourism leaders also called on the Prime Minister to introduce virus tests for those arriving in the UK – warning the industry could be ‘permanently scarred’ unless self-isolation measures are eased.
In a letter to Mr Johnson, the bosses of British Airways, Easy Jet, Jet2 and Wizz Air demanded the ‘urgent’ adoption of a more ‘nuanced’ policy.
Travelbosses last night urged Boris Johnson to drop blanket restrictions on whole countries as the row over quarantine rules escalated. Pictured: Hotel beaches in Majorca were empty today
They called for the introduction of ‘regional travel corridors’ to replace blanket measures that mean those arriving from any part of an at-risk country have to quarantine for 14 days.
They suggested this could allow holidaymakers to resume travel to the Spanish islands and some US states.
But as he returned to the UK last night having cut short his own family holiday to Spain, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the Government’s decision to require travellers from the country to isolate for 14 days.
He expressed sympathy with holidaymakers’ frustrations at the change brought in with just a few hours’ notice on Saturday evening, but insisted it was the ‘right thing to do’.
Mr Shapps said: ‘I very much understand, it obviously had an impact on me and my family and I’m very, very sorry and upset for the thousands of Brits who are either away or perhaps even haven’t managed to go away this summer as well to Spain.
‘But it’s absolutely essential we acted when we did, it’s why all four nations of the United Kingdom acted together and the figures since have turned out to justify that action.
A coalition of 47 airlines, airports and tourism leaders also called on him to introduce virus tests for those arriving in the UK – warning the industry could be ‘permanently scarred’. Pictured: Sunbathers on Bournemouth beach today
Former Cabinet minister David Davis last night supported the suggestion, saying: ‘Vienna has been doing this for months. I don’t understand why we haven’t.’
‘We have to, I think, have a clear message and make sure we act by adding entire countries to that list for the time being.’
He said the Government had considered excluding certain Spanish islands from the measures but chief medical officer Chris Whitty ‘was very clear with us that he was concerned about the data’.
He added: ‘It had doubled in just a few days. He was concerned to see what was happening in the islands and that’s why we make it a whole-country approach in these things.’
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye yesterday warned holidaymakers face a disastrous ‘quarantine roulette’ unless the airport testing is adopted.
He proposed that travellers are tested on arrival before going into quarantine.
They would have a second test five or eight days later and – if clear – go back to normal life.
Pressure was last night growing on the Government to offer travellers coronavirus tests when they arrive in this country.
Former Brexit secretary Mr Davis said: ‘Heathrow boss is right to call for airport testing to replace hard quarantines.
‘Vienna has been doing this for months. I don’t understand why we haven’t.
‘Nothing is perfect, you are as likely to catch the virus on the London underground back home as you are on the plane or on holiday.’
He added: ‘On a 14 day holiday there is an 80 per cent chance someone infected will manifest symptoms at the airport. If this is the case everyone on the plane should be quarantined. US companies like Cepheid can turnaround a test in 30 minutes.’
Sir Iain said: ‘We have lost the ability to balance risk. We have handed everything over to the scientists.
‘We need to get people back to work. The blanket quarantine approach affects the poorest the most, and hits the economy. We have to look at testing at airports.”
Mr Smith, from the Future of Aviation Group, said testing at airports could help ensure ‘we don’t lose’ the entire summer holiday season abroad.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, the travelbosses of British Airways, Easy Jet, Jet2 and Wizz Air demanded the ‘urgent’ adoption of a more ‘nuanced’ policy
He told The Telegraph: ‘Gatwick, in my constituency, has one of the largest general public testing sites in its car park, and could extend that to people entering the country.’
In their joint letter, travel bosses argued testing has ‘the potential to be a game-changing additional tool for authorities to safely open up travel without quarantine from countries or regions deemed higher risk, such as the United States’.
The group also called for blanket quarantine restrictions on arrivals from whole countries to be replaced by regional ones.
They wrote: ‘This would allow for quarantine-free travel to unaffected parts of a country, including not just Spain but other key markets for trade and tourism like the United States and Canada.’
The industry leaders wrote that the introduction of quarantine measures for Spain at the weekend had been the ‘latest significant blow to a sector which now risks being permanently scarred’.
They added: ‘We fully support the objective of maintaining public health and supporting travel only where safe to do so.
However, the lack of a more targeted approach to quarantine and travel advice will simply further damage the travel and hospitality sector by creating uncertainty.’
Latest figures from Spain yesterday showed 1,153 new virus infections in the past 24 hours, down 700 from the previous day.
Ministers are understood to be considering if airport esting could be used to ease quarantine restrictions, but sources last night insisted there were no imminent changes planned.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden yesterday stressed there was ‘no viable alternative to the 14-day quarantine’. He said: ‘It (coronavirus) can incubate over a period of time, so there’s not a silver bullet of just testing immediately at the border.’
How could testing passengers as they arrive in the UK help?
Giving travellers the ‘all clear’ from coronavirus as soon as possible would curtail their period of quarantine.
This would allow them to go back to working and spending – both crucial for the survival of Britain’s economy.
Research suggests testing passengers on arrival would catch around 50 per cent of those who are infected. However, some period of quarantine would still be necessary for those testing negative.
This is because many infected people would slip through the first test because it takes on average five to six days to begin displaying symptoms after exposure to the virus.
Wish you weren’t here Mr Shapps? Transport Secretary Grant Shapps returns to his home in Hertfordshire today
After seven days of quarantine, a second test would pick up 94 per cent of carriers, according to new scientific modelling by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTR). Those free of the virus could then be exempt from the rest of the quarantine period.
What are scientists’ views on the idea?
Scientists say testing people arriving in the UK from overseas can provide an essential tool to curb the pandemic.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘This is a welcome illustration of the principle that testing can be used to reduced the need for quarantine. It is possible that a double testing strategy could be almost as effective as 14 days quarantine.’
Dr Andrew Freedman, reader in infectious diseases at Cardiff University, said: ‘This modelling study from the LSHTR provides a strong argument in favour of shortening the quarantine period from the current 14 days to eight days, by performing a test on day seven after arrival.
‘This would have a very significant benefit to the individual traveller as well as the travel industry as a whole.’
Professor Jose Vazquez-Boland, chairman of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said it would help prevent the importation of new infections.
‘These tests are important to halt international transmission and to protect a country from new Covid-19 flare-ups,’ he said. ‘As such they are an essential tool to curb the pandemic.’
Where could the tests take place?
Airports may be able to provide testing centres on site, allowing travellers to book ahead and take their first test immediately. Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye has said he could have testing sites ready ‘within weeks’. Transport logistics companies Swissport and Collinson said they have already devised a proposal for testing on arrival.
A spokesman said it is ‘safe, prioritises public health, and also enables industries in crisis – including aviation, hospitality, tourism, and all those sectors that rely on international trade – to get back on their feet’. It would allow travellers to book a test – known as a ‘polymerase chain reaction’ or PCR test – which would then be processed within 24 hours – and in most cases within seven hours.
‘Following receipt of a negative PCR test, travellers would be released from quarantine,’ the spokesman said.
Airports may be able to provide testing centres on site, allowing travellers to book ahead and take their first test immediately. Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye has said he could have testing sites ready ‘within weeks’
How much would they cost?
Heathrow boss Mr Holland-Kaye has said a UK airport test would cost about £150 each, with passengers expected to pay. It is feasible that the second test could take place at current Government swab centres, which are currently running with unused capacity – although this would change in the event of a second spike.
Currently, NHS tests are free for anyone showing symptoms. It is not clear whether this – if the Government were to adopt a test on arrival scheme – would remain the case for people who have returned from overseas and who require a second test to free themselves from quarantine.
What are the other drawbacks of testing on arrival?
Coronavirus testing is still not foolproof. It can give ‘false positives’, for example.
In those circumstances, on arrival testing could force a passenger into a 14-day quarantine unnecessarily.
‘False negatives’ – which fail to detect the virus even though it is present – would also be a risk.
Could we quarantine only those who have visited regions where there is an outbreak?
UK officials say this would be an administrative nightmare.
They would have to keep constant track of the situation in hundreds or thousands of places, and then communicate that information clearly to travellers.
A country-wide quarantine plan is far simpler and, they say, safer.