How airport testing in Britain might work, and how it compares with other countries

Heathrow Airport is ready to begin testing international arrivals
Heathrow Airport is ready to begin testing international arrivals Credit: LHR Airports Limited
Heathrow is ready to test international arrivals as ministers discuss ditching the 14-day quarantine

Heathrow Airport has revealed plans to test arriving passengers for coronavirus at a new pop-up testing centre, in an effort to reduce the amount of time travellers must spend in quarantine.

The news comes as airport testing grows in popularity across the globe and travel bosses attempt to get the industry back on its feet in the wake of the pandemic.

As is the case with the majority of the new Covid safety measures, there are plenty of questions about how it might work in Britain. With details set to be discussed by the Government next week, we look at how it might work, and how other countries are leading by example.

UK

New plans set to be discussed by ministers next week could see air passengers arriving in the UK tested for coronavirus on their arrival home. It’s hoped this will enable returning holidaymakers to shorten the current 14-day quarantine period imposed on those returning from countries deemed as high risk, if they test negative.

It is reported that ministers will consider both a double and single testing approach. The first involves swabbing passengers on arrival into the UK at the airport then again either five or eight days afterwards by the NHS – only after two negative tests would they be free to end their self-isolation. The latter option would see just one test carried out five to 10 days after arrival.

Heathrow is leading the charge on airport testing, and revealed its first purpose-built testing centre this week in Terminal Two. It says assengers returning from countries not on the Government’s ‘safe list’ will have to pay £150 for a test, if ministers approve the new trial. Results from the swab test, which will be carried out by nurses, will reportedly be available within seven hours, during which time passengers must return home and quarantine, until they take a second test – only if this shows negative will they be permitted to leave their isolation. A second testing centre is planned to open in Heathrow’s Terminal Five next month.

Germany

Germany was one of the first countries to bring in airport testing back in June when the national airline Lufthansa offered paid-for testing for passengers at Frankfurt, swiftly followed by the opening of a walk-in testing centre at Munich Airport in July.

Free airport testing, or a proof of a negative result taken 48 hours before arrival, is now compulsory for all people arriving from high-risk countries, with a list issued by the Robert Koch Institute, the German public health agency, regularly updated. 

Airport test centres are now in operation in Germany Credit: AFP or licensors/TOBIAS SCHWARZ

As part of the ruling, which was brought in on August 8, people have three days to get tested, either at the airport, certain railway stations or at a doctors office – with the majority opting to test immediately in the terminal. In order to be exempt from self-isolation travellers must provide a negative test result, with some German states requiring a second to lift quarantine restrictions.

Voluntary free testing is also available for passengers arriving from low-risk areas at local health centres, or for those arriving in Hamburg Airport at a new pop-up testing centre established by Centogene, the company behind the first testing site in Frankfurt.

Iceland

Since mid-June air passengers arriving in Iceland have been given a choice, either take a double Covid-19 test or quarantine for 14 days.

While initially tests were free, since July arrivals have had to pay. From this week travellers can pay £50 for a test on arrival, paid in advance when completing a pre-registration form. For five days they must take certain precautions (avoiding public transport, for example); then they must take a second (free) test. If both are negative they are free from restrictions.

Keflavik Airport is currently the only hub to offer on-site testing, with passengers arriving at the likes of Reykjavik, Akureyri and Egilsstadir being tested at local healthcare centres, if they choose to be. Children born in or after 2005 are exempt from both the need to test or quarantine.

China

As the trend for airport testing gains in popularity, this week Hong Kong’s main airport began free testing of inbound residents for coronavirus, making it the first in China to do so.

Following their arrival at Hong Kong International, passengers are transported on a shuttle bus to a temporary testing centre within the airport to be tested, where they must then stay until their test results are available (usually the same day according to the airport’s website), before then proceeding to immigration and baggage reclaim (if they test negative), or life in quarantine (if they test positive).

Pop-up airport testing centres deliver quick results Credit: DPA.DE

France

Airport testing has been in place across much of France since August 1 and is compulsory for all passengers arriving from the countries currently deemed as high-risk by the French government, including the US, Brazil and Turkey.

Passengers have two options, either take a coronavirus test in their country of origin before travelling and have certification to prove a negative result (the compulsory option for those travelling from the United Arab Emirates, US, Bahrain and Panama), or take a compulsory test upon arrival in France.

Unlike the proposed scheme at Heathrow, tests for those arriving in France are free of charge and results are emailed to the passengers within 48 hours, during which time people are advised to self-isolate. A positive result sees this isolation extended to 14 days, however a negative test allows travellers to continue with life as ‘normal’.

The free testing is currently only available for French citizens who live in the countries on the ‘red list’ or citizens of the countries who have an alternative residence in France – as they are the only group permitted to enter France from these areas.

Japan

Tech-savvy Japan has not only been carrying out airport testing for some time but recently reduced the wait time for results to just one hour – enabling them to roughly double their testing capacity as the country looks to open its borders to international travelers in the near future.

Haneda and Narita airports in Tokyo will now be using an antigen test that involves taking saliva samples, rather than nasal swabs required for the previous polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which provide quicker results – Kansai airport near Osaka will adopt the same approach from September. As well as testing arriving passengers the three pop-up testing centres also test outbound residents, providing them with a certificate to show authorities at their destination.