Pressure is growing on the UK government to open transatlantic air corridors which would allow quarantine-free travel with the US and offer another ray of hope for international tourists.
A number of airlines including British Airways, American Airlines and United Airlines are running pilot programs which will see passengers tested for COVID-19 both before and after flying, potentially removing the need for lengthy quarantine periods which are currently a major barrier to transatlantic travel.
United Airlines has already launched its programme, with a flight arriving at London Heathrow from New York Newark on November 17 in which all passengers had been screened for COVID-19 before take-off. According to the company, which plans to run 11 more US-UK flights under the program, 40 passengers tested negative for the virus while one tested positive and was not allowed to travel.
Under the joint British Airways and American Airlines program, passengers flying to Heathrow from New York, Los Angeles and Dallas will be offered the opportunity to take part in a free voluntary testing process.
Somewhat more rigorous than the United Airlines program, the British Airways tests will involve a self-administered nasal sample collected by passengers under the supervision of medical professionals via video call, which will take place 72 hours before departure. This will be followed by a nasal swab conducted by health workers on arrival at Heathrow airport, and finally a saliva sample taken by passengers alone, three days after arrival.
Importantly, those who agree to take part in these pilot program will still be required to self-isolate for two weeks on arrival in the UK as per the current government quarantine rules. However, it is hoped that the trials will demonstrate to the British government that accurate testing can replace the current two-week quarantine period and thereby attract more international tourists.
Health Screening Offers Another Route Back To International Travel
These pilot COVID-19 health screening programs represent another way in which the airline industry is hoping to boost its fortunes amid the pandemic and get passengers back on planes. In the UK in particular tourists have been discouraged from travelling to the country by the mandatory two-week quarantine period for all international arrivals, with the exception of those coming from a small list of approved travel corridors.
The required two-week self isolation period affects travellers from the US, Canada, and most of Europe, significantly reducing tourist arrivals in the UK even as other countries such as France and Germany have shifted to requiring testing rather than quarantining for new arrivals. Heathrow airport expects to see a 72% drop in passenger numbers this year as the travel restrictions take their toll.
If these pilot programs are successful, however, the pressure will increase on the UK government to roll-out testing for international arrivals or allow airlines to conduct health screening of passengers, which would be a significant boost for transatlantic travellers to the UK in the short-term.
Airlines are pressing ahead with these trials despite the recent news that successful vaccines may be close to realisation, in the knowledge that the vaccines are unlikely to be widely available for international travellers for several months. The ability to screen passengers for the virus is consequently a vital interim measure which can help return people to international travel over coming months.
UK Government Looking To Amend Quarantine Process
The UK government is already planning to amend the quarantine period for international travellers, cutting the time required for self-isolation to 7 days, from 14, through the use of PCR testing. Under the proposed changes, travellers will be required to take a test on the fifth day of their quarantine after arrival in the UK, and if it is negative they will be able to end their self-isolation after 7 days. While this will go some way to making international travel to the UK easier, it will not be as effective as a successful pre-flight testing programme.
On the negative side, the potential introduction of these programs will create further hurdles for international travel in the near future. For example, the UK government’s seven-day quarantine program will require travellers to pay for their own PCR tests, which currently cost between GBP80-150. What’s more, if these requirements are combined with other new steps including obtaining certificates proving vaccination against the virus, it is likely that international tourists will have to prepare themselves for more red tape and delays while travelling overseas in 2021 and possibly beyond.
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