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Passenger testing is needed if we want the UK aviation industry to survive

A successful and thriving aviation sector will be vital to our long-term economic recovery, writes Huw Merriman MP

4 min read

Airport testing on arrival is unlikely, but if the government adopts testing mid-way through quarantine, it would cut the potential for community transmission whilst steadily resuming flights.

Our aviation sector is one of the jewels in the crown of our economy. Before the pandemic struck, the UK had the largest aviation network in Europe and the third biggest in the world. The industry employed hundreds of thousands of people directly and indirectly. Few industries have been as badly affected as aviation, which has seen a 98% fall in passenger numbers and thousands of job losses. This has devastated the sector and put it at real and serious risk.

When I opened a recent debate in Parliament on what more could be done, I reflected on the Transport Select Committee’s report from this summer, ‘The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the aviation Industry’, and the numerous recommendations we made for Government financial support. Speaking after me, our former Prime Minister, Theresa May, called it correctly when she said what the aviation industry really needs is to get people flying again.

Alas, during the crisis, we have seen the closure of borders, the introduction of 14-day quarantine, and the development of travel corridors (almost all of which have now been scrapped). The resumption of the summer holiday season gave the sector a glimmer of hope, only for it to be quashed before a recovery had even started. 

Throughout all of this, our aviation industry has watched as other nations have moved to support their airlines and airports through measures to reopen travel safely including a programme of testing at airports.  This has been in place in some European nations for months and, in the case of South Korea, since March.

Since June, the aviation industry, business groups and MPs from all parties have called on the Government to permit testing. This enthusiasm has not been shared by a Government understandably concerned about asymptomatic passengers not being picked up and prioritising testing resources for those areas of the country now experiencing a second Covid spike.

Introducing testing, alongside broader support and financial measures, will allow our airports and airlines to begin their recovery

Last week’s announcement of a ‘global travel task force’ to ensure the safe recovery of international travel is a step in the direction. Detail as to the testing regime the Government favours is due to be set out. It is unlikely to feature testing at the airport on arrival, given the Government have repeatedly raised concerns that the virus won’t be picked up if in its early stages. However, if the Government leaves the test too long into quarantine, it may not increase demand.

Who is going to pay £200 or so to be released for just the last four days of their quarantine?

Modelling, published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has been reported as demonstrating that quarantining people for eight days on arrival from the EU and testing them on day seven, with an additional day to communicate test results, could reduce the number of people with Covid-19 re-entering the community by 94% (compared to no quarantine or testing). Running the same scenario by testing people on day five of quarantine, and releasing them on day six, cut the potential for transmission by 88%.

Nobody should dispute that public health has to be the Government’s top priority. The key lies in finding a proportionate way to deliver a robust test to reduce the length of quarantine which, in turn, will steadily resume the number of flights.

A good case can be made for testing and releasing people from quarantine on day six. Having to endure less than half of quarantine is a good sell. Reducing the risk by 88%, particularly when considering many of the countries visited will have lower Covid-rates than the UK currently has, could be argued to be proportionate.

The lack of progress on testing has perhaps been understandable taking the Government’s concerns into account. However, it is now holding back our aviation sector’s ability to survive and recover from the devastating impacts of the pandemic.

A successful and thriving aviation sector will be vital to our long-term economic recovery. Introducing testing, alongside broader support and financial measures, will allow our airports and airlines to begin their recovery and so help Britain get back on its feet. 


Huw Merriman is the Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle and chair of the Transport Committee. 

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