Heathrow airport has warned that the UK risks being left behind other European countries unless the government rapidly introduces a passenger testing scheme to help the battered aviation industry recover from coronavirus disruption.
The airport operator slid to a £1bn loss in the first half of the year and warned that the current government policy left the UK “playing a game of quarantine roulette” that was benefiting its European rivals.
“The UK needs a passenger testing regime, and fast,” airport chief executive John Holland-Kaye said on Wednesday. “If the UK doesn’t act soon, global Britain will be nothing more than a campaign slogan.”
But the government responded that there was no safe way to test people on arrival and ministers did not yet have a “viable alternative” to the 14-day quarantine.
“It is not the case that testing provides a silver bullet,” culture minister Oliver Dowden told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We cannot risk importing it again from other countries where incidences are rising, that’s why we imposed the restrictions on Spain.
“We are reviewing all options because what we want to do is to minimise the disruption. I have to just caution in respect of testing [at airports], it is not the case that testing provides a silver bullet.”
He added: “If we could avoid imposing quarantine in a way that it was safe to do so, of course, we would do that — that is why we keep it under review.
“We need to ensure that the measures we’ve taken in the UK — which have been very difficult — to keep this virus under control, do not go to waste because we allow cases to come in from elsewhere.”
Ministers are facing growing pressure to review the policy after senior Conservative MPs also questioned why the government was not introducing testing at airports on Wednesday.
“Heathrow boss is right to call for airport testing to replace hard quarantines,” former cabinet secretary David Davis said on Twitter. “Vienna has been doing this for months. I don’t understand why we haven’t.”
Passenger numbers fell 96 per cent between April and June at Heathrow, and while the airport said it expected a gradual recovery in the rest of this year, it still forecast passenger volumes to fall 60 per cent compared with 2019.
“Today’s results should serve as a clarion call for the government,” Mr Holland-Kaye said.
The aviation industry is lobbying for a testing regime to help lift travel restrictions and restart mass tourism and business travel. Heathrow, which has been calling for health checks on passengers since April, has trialled swab tests which it hopes could be a way to open routes to higher risk countries, including the US, which have seen a sharp rise in infections.
The travel industry’s woes deepened after the UK imposed quarantine measures on passengers returning from Spain at the weekend, dealing a severe blow to hopes that “air bridges” with popular destinations could salvage some of the critical summer season.
Boris Johnson added to the concerns on Tuesday when he warned that there were now “signs of a second wave” in Europe.
Paul Charles, chief executive of The PC Agency, a travel company, said he had analysed some of the rapid increases in infection rates across the continent. “There are certainly issues with Belgium, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Monaco and Romania,” he said. “Case numbers are also rising very fast in Gibraltar. They’ve gone from 2 in 100, 000 to 14 in 100,000 in just a week.”
Under the government’s “traffic light system” countries are upgraded or downgraded every week, usually on a Friday.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard