Passengers flying from Heathrow to Hong Kong and Italy have become the first to be given the option of a rapid COVID-19 test before departure with results available in just one hour.

The new testing service will help open up travel to areas where proof of a negative test is required on arrival. Passengers flying to the two destinations will be able to book a private test online for £80 from today. The testing service will be offered to customers flying with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific. The ‘LAMP’ (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification) test is now available at Heathrow Terminals 2 and 5. The rapid saliva swab uses different processes than the NHS’ PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test. Results are received quicker as the test does not require the samples to be sent off to a laboratory.

Departures testing may help open up international route network

The new test facility in Heathrow is for departures and will not have an immediate impact on the UK’s current two-week travel quarantine measures for people arriving from “at risk” countries. Airport bosses say they will expand the testing offer in the coming weeks, but have not yet announced whether other countries have been added into the scheme.

A testing facility for returning passengers was set up at Heathrow by aviation services company Collinson Group in the summer, but is yet to receive government approval. Collinson, which partners with logistics firm Swissport, on the new departures testing capability is hoping that greater use of testing will help open up routes between the UK and other countries. Airlines and trade bodies are calling for wider use of testing to help economic recovery by reducing mandatory quarantine periods by around a week.

A growing number of countries have classified the UK as an “at risk” country, with restrictions and quarantine measures imposed on arrivals from Britain. Both Italy and Hong Kong require all UK passengers to provide a negative coronavirus test result before they are allowed into the countries. Hong Kong authorities require passengers to show a negative test result taken within 72 hours of a flight from London.

COVID testing: “We need a common international standard”

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “These facilities will make it easier for passengers going to those countries to get a test and have the potential to provide a service for arriving passengers. Ultimately, we need a common international standard for pre-departure testing, and we welcome the UK government’s recent announcement that it wants to take a global lead in establishing this.”

“We will work with them to make this happen as soon as possible, so that we protect livelihoods as well as lives.”

Pre-departure tests and health screening will become another stage of the airport experience for international travellers, according to David Evans, joint chief executive officer at Collinson: “With countries around the world adding the UK to their list of high-risk countries, we need to find a way to work with governments, leading travel brands and other commercial entities to safely open up travel out of the UK.”

Lower costs tests would give passengers more confidence to travel

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the aviation trade body Airlines UK, called for the cost of the test to be lowered. “For business passengers £80 is probably quite competitive but we’ve certainly said to the government in terms of introducing a test on arrival in the UK anything from £50-£60 would be better,” he said.

He added that travel could be made “easier” again with passengers turning up at the airport just an hour before their flights for testing. He maintained that greater use of testing would help give people confidence to travel, making flights more “COVID secure.”

The LAMP test is “slightly less sensitive” than the NHS’s PCR test and the results would not be sufficient for people travelling to destinations which require proof of a negative PCR test. Destinations requiring more sensitive tests include Greece, Cyprus, the Bahamas and Bermuda

UK in talks with US about “multiple test” system

Ministers are set to give their approval in the next month to the idea of people paying for a test after a week of quarantine to avoid the full two weeks. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government was in talks with the US Department of Homeland Security about a new multiple test system for arrivals.

The new system could involve people taking a COVID-19 test two or three days before they fly into the UK, and another when they arrive, making it possible for arrivals into the UK from “at risk” countries to avoid quarantine altogether. Shapps warned there would be no immediate solution as testing protocols would require international co-operation.

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