Heathrow ready to host UK’s first COVID-19 airport testing trial


The pilot of the new testing procedure would be available as a private service to anyone with a flight landing in Heathrow Terminal 2.

Heathrow Airport is gearing up to pilot a COVID-19 testing procedure, jointly developed by travel assistance firm Collinson and ground-handling company Swissport.

The pilot, the first of its kind in the UK, will mean passengers can be checked for COVID-19 upon landing at Heathrow and know just hours later if they have tested positive for the virus. The ‘Test-on-Arrival’ procedure could provide a solution to those travelling from places that haven’t been included in the list of countries exempt from quarantine, that was published by the UK Government last week. The trial will only work if the Government also adds negative tests during the process to its list of exemptions.

If embraced by the Government, the tests can build on the first step that was made with the traffic light system and help the travel sector recovery by enabling even more people to travel from ‘red’ countries where quarantine is still required.

Heathrow CEO, John Holland-Kaye, commented: “The Government made a significant step forward last week by removing quarantine for visitors from many countries, but we still need a solution that safely allows passengers to travel to and from higher risk countries. This trial with Swissport and Collinson will provide a much-needed alternative to quarantine for those arriving passengers and should add further momentum to the Government’s push for Common International Standards which are needed for the resumption of global travel.”

The pilot of the new testing procedure would be available as a private service to anyone with a flight landing in Heathrow Terminal 2. Passengers will need to set up an account and book their test online, before beginning their journey to the UK. The tests will be carried out by Collinson nurses in a Swissport facility on arrival at the airport. During the appointment, a swab will be taken for testing, which is then sent to a Collinson biotech lab near Heathrow, using the same transportation protocols the NHS uses for home swab tests.

The tests, which use the gold standard of virus detection, RT-PCR testing, are sensitive enough to detect COVID-19 particles, even when a passenger has displayed no symptoms. If travelling from a country where quarantine is still required, passengers will be asked to continue from Heathrow to the address they provided at the time of booking, while they await their test results, which they’ll receive within 24 hours.

If this arrivals testing model is added by the Government as an additional exemption to the quarantine policy, the long-term ambition is for passengers to be free to leave quarantine measures when given the all clear. In the event that the test comes back positive, they’ll be asked to abide by isolation requirements, staying at their given quarantine address for the next 14 days.

“We launched the tests to help get the travel ecosystem moving again, using science to reassure the public it’s safe to do so,” said David Evans, Joint CEO at Collinson. “PCR testing is the gold standard of COVID-19 testing, used by the NHS and Public Health England, as it is able to detect the virus even when someone is asymptomatic.”

“We have seen the results of clinical trials using the same testing protocol at other European airports. In these trials, travellers were tested on arrival and again five days later. They showed zero cases of someone testing negative in the first instance and then positive in the second, proving the sensitivity of the tests when carried out on arrival. We’re looking forward to working with Heathrow to pilot this science-led approach. Together, we can provide a pioneering solution that will get the travel and aviation sector back on its feet, which will be a massive boost for the UK’s economy.”

“Test-on-Arrival perfectly complements last week’s list of countries exempt from quarantine,” said Richard Cawthra, Chief Commercial Officer, Swissport. “Should the Government also grant the exemption we are seeking, travellers could go to countries beyond those on the list with confidence, knowing that they would not face a quarantine upon landing in the UK as long as they test negative. This would not only stimulate inbound and outbound tourism and business travel in the UK, helping the economy and the travel sector back on their feet, but it would also safeguard the success of reopening up routes with the countries on the list. For example, if a country’s status was changed to ‘red’, testing would allow the Government to keep the route open with quarantine reintroduced unless they test negative. That is why this testing pilot with Heathrow is so vital – it’ll allow for more flexibility with how people can travel, while keeping the public safe.”

A similar initiative was also recently launched by Lufthansa at Frankfurt and Munich airports, where passengers can now get tested for COVID-19 to avoid being quarantined, when arriving in Germany and Austria.

For more information on what other steps Heathrow Airport is taking to prepare for the return of regular flights, you can read our recent interview with the airport’s Health and Safety Director Amanda Owen here.

The circumstances surrounding COVID-19 are continuously evolving. Our friends at APEX have a dedicated COVID-19 page, which they’ll be updating regularly to help keep you up-to-date on how the novel coronavirus is impacting the aviation industry. Visit the page for the very latest news >>

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