In the last six months we have seen unprecedented disruption to international travel. Yet this week, as the Government approaches yet another chaotic episode in its increasingly unpopular quarantine policy, there is an alternative way forward.
Today, as a result of what you have told us, Telegraph Travel launches Test4Travel – a campaign urging the Government to roll out affordable Covid-19 tests on arrivals at all UK airports and ports, by Christmas.
Exclusive survey data compiled for Telegraph Travel by travel consultancy The PC Agency and independent market research company AudienceNet, polling 2,139 respondents, shows that 62 per cent of the population supports a test on arrivals in the UK over a 14-day quarantine, and more than half would be willing to cover the costs of a test.
Of those who have an opinion, nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) would prefer a two-part test (with 5 days of self-quarantine in between) above a 14-day mandatory quarantine that is currently in force.
This tallies with what you, our Telegraph Travel readers, have told us. In a Twitter poll last week, 92 per cent said you want testing introduced at airports to remove the need for quarantine – and the majority of you said you would be happy to pay.
With support from airport chiefs, health professionals, MPs and with this new positive polling, the Telegraph urges the Government to test all arrivals on entry to the UK in order to drop the current, ineffective quarantine. We believe this testing regime will save the travel industry, help to revive the UK’s tourism economy and restore the nation’s faith in our holidays, in a way that will better contain the spread of Covid-19.
We launch Test4Travel today because the Government’s current ‘travel corridors’ policy is broken. This week, we have seen the starkest example yet that the process of adding and removing countries from the UK’s travel corridor list is unsustainable. Just ten days after Portugal got the green light for travel, it is now on the cusp of being stripped of its travel corridor, as cases pass the threshold of 20 cases per 100,000.
This possible impending travel ban has already sparked a mass exodus for British holidaymakers in Portugal, as we’ve already seen in Croatia, France and Spain in recent weeks. These knee-jerk travel bans have caused panic and disappointment, sometimes at significant expense for those with holidays cut short. Many have lost money on upcoming, non-refundable bookings. And in the case of Portugal, there is the very real possibility that thousands of children will miss the beginning of the school term, if a quarantine is imposed and families struggle to return in time. From what you have told us, it seems that a high percentage of holidaymakers would welcome a small additional fee to take a test, rather than face this potential financial fallout.
But exactly how much would it cost? Experts put the cost of ‘lab in a box’ (LAMP) tests at around €40 to the consumer, and our polling data shows this would be well within the realms of what Telegraph readers deem to be acceptable on top of holiday costs. According to our Twitter poll, asking how much people would be prepared to pay to take tests to avoid quarantine, 41 per cent said they would pay up to £50, 19 per cent would pay up to £100, and 19 per cent would pay up to £150.
Across the wider general public, 52 per cent are prepared to pay a minimum of £50 for a test, if it meant they could avoid a quarantine, according to data from PC Agency and Audiencenet. Of those 52 per cent, 38 per cent would pay up to £50, 10 per cent would pay up to £100, and 4 per cent would pay up to £150.
Speaking out against the Government’s quarantine policy, Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways’ parent company IAG, said yesterday: “The Government is using arbitrary statistics to effectively ban 160 countries and in the process destroying the economy. It needs to introduce a testing regime to restore confidence.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the travel industry has seen the sad loss of behemoths including STA Travel and the UK’s leading domestic airline, Flybe. Hays Travel, now the UK’s top high street travel agent, has had to cut a fifth of its workforce, while British Airways is looking to slash 12,000 jobs.
The impact on businesses which deal with overseas holidays is only one part of the picture; we are also witnessing a catastrophic slump in domestic travel. In 2018, tourism contributed £218 billion to the UK’s GDP. That number will be more than halved in 2020, with tourist visits expected to drop by 59 per cent to 16.9 million visits, down from 40.9 million last year. According to Statista, this amounts to a loss of around £60 million per day.
The enduring economic impact of halting business travel is significant, too, with routes between the UK and financial hubs like Singapore and New York City indefinitely cordoned off. As a knock-on-effect, London’s top hotels, usually filled with business travellers, are currently working at an occupancy rate of just 5 to 10 per cent.
There are also serious question marks over the effectiveness of the Passenger Locator Form, currently used to enforce quarantine on arrivals. Firstly, and concerningly, the police has revealed it has only enforced three £100 fines for those breaking quarantine, in two months. What’s more, we have seen a revealing case study this week in how the system fails to actually contain the spread of the virus at all.
Some 16 cases of Covid have been linked to TUI flight 6215 from Zante to Cardiff, which landed on August 25. However, Public Health Wales has since revealed some travellers aboard the flight weren’t contacted until a week after they returned, due to difficulties in contacting all of the passengers on board – phones being turned off is one obstacle, they say.
Responding to this debacle, Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy PC Agency, said: “If speedy UK airport arrival testing was in place, combined with a second test five days later, then I’m sure health authorities would have picked up the majority, if not all cases promptly.
“Instead those positive have been mixing in their communities for several days. This Tui flight is absolute proof of why the government should implement airport testing now, as over 30 other countries have already done.”
So what would a testing regime look like? Dr Charlie Easmon, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, tells Telegraph Travel: “Testing is the best solution because it is rooted in science. It is accurate, fast, simple and non-invasive. Qualities which the current quarantine system is not.
“Instead we should have an efficient system that runs as follows: firstly, test on arrival (at the airport, for example). This also ensures that we have the personal data in terms of name, contact details and place of residence.”
“Then, those found positive would be told to isolate for 14 days and tracked for any severity of illness. Those found negative would be informed that they could still be incubating the disease and need another test five days later. Only once the second test is done can they be fully given the all clear.”
While the technology is already there for what is known as a LAMP test, with 40-minute results, Heathrow is now working with Oxford and Manchester universities to develop a test with results in just twenty seconds.
John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow Airport’s chief executive, told the Telegraph: “Testing is the lifeline that the UK’s aviation sector needs to get back on its feet. We’ve put some of the most cutting-edge rapid testing technologies into action at Heathrow to see which offers the best solution.
“If we can find a test that is accurate, gets a result within a matter of minutes, is cost-effective and gets the Government green light, we could have the potential to introduce wide-scale testing at the airport.
“Without this, our first class aviation sector risks becoming second class, giving Britain’s competitive advantage to others.”
It is not just the travel industry pushing for airport testing. Last week, a group of 80 MPs wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to end quarantine and introduce airport testing on arrivals to get business moving.
The MPs, including 40 Conservatives, warned Britain is at risk of being left behind as more than 30 countries, including Germany, have already introduced testing to free business and leisure travel from quarantine from ‘red list’ countries.
Christine Jardine, Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, told Telegraph Travel: “We need to be testing people arriving into the UK on arrival as this would hugely cut quarantine numbers and time. The current system is unworkable and causing unnecessary anxiety among consumers.
“The financial and mental implications for those being forced to choose between obeying the quarantine rules and going out to work should not be overlooked and testing would decrease those pressures.”
So in the interests of you, our globe-trotting readers, we urge the Government to introduce rapid testing on arrival at all UK airports, ferry ports, and at Eurostar terminals, followed by another confirmatory test five days later, thereby minimising quarantine to a short, advisory isolation. Those with a positive test would of course be tracked, and instructed to quarantine for a full two weeks.
As a longer term measure, we support the development of multilateral testing arrangements with other countries, allowing for rapid testing before departure to create Covid-free airports and ‘green flights’ – widely believed to be the most effective way of preventing the spread of Covid-19, and something the UK could help lead globally alongside the WHO.
If you agree with Test4Travel, we ask you to throw your weight behind our campaign. Write to your local MP, spread the word on social media, join the debate in the comment section of this article – if you would be happy to pay for a quick and efficient test to avoid quarantine, say so.
Let us grow this groundswell of public opinion in favour of testing, and show the Government it is the best way forward to reboot our holidays, while minimising the risk to public health.
Would you be happy to take a Covid-19 test on arrival in the UK, to avoid quarantine? Comment below to join the conversation.