Heathrow Airport has launched a pre-departure Covid testing facility - what it means for travel

Tuesday, 20th October 2020, 2:56 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th October 2020, 2:56 pm

Passengers who travel to Hong Kong and Italy from London’s Heathrow Airport will now be able to take a one-hour Covid-19 test before they fly.

The new pre-departure rapid Covid-19 testing facility launched at the airport on Tuesday 20 October, with Terminals 2 and 5 first to offer the tests.

How does the test work?

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The new testing facility comes as part of plans to open up international travel, with passengers travelling to Hong Kong and Italy subject to testing initially.

The rapid tests will allow travellers to enter countries where a negative Covid-19 test result is needed to avoid a 14-day quarantine.

Airlines including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific are among the first to be offering the facility to passengers travelling out of Heathrow’s Terminal 2 and 5.

To begin with, the facilities will offer LAMP testing and will initially be open for four weeks. This could later be extended if there is sufficient demand from passengers and will expand to offer antigen testing in the coming weeks.

Unlike PCR tests, which are used by the NHS, LAMP and antigen tests can be processed much quicker as they don’t need to be sent to a laboratory.

Aviation services company Collinson and logistics firm Swissport described the pre-departure testing regime as the “crucial next step toward keeping the travel industry moving while limiting the spread of the virus”.

The private test costs £80 and aims to provide results in as little as one hour, with passengers interested in using the facility required to book a test online before arriving at the airport.

The announcement follows the launch of Collinson and Swissport’s test-on-arrival facility at Heathrow in August, which still remains empty as it has yet to be given government approval for use.

Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “These facilities will make it easier for passengers going to those countries to get a test and have the potential to provide a service for arriving passengers.

“Ultimately, we need a common international standard for pre-departure testing, and we welcome the UK government’s recent announcement that it wants to take a global lead in establishing this.

“We will work with them to make this happen as soon as possible, so that we protect livelihoods as well as lives.”

Will testing help remove the need for quarantine?

In early October, the government unveiled a task force to develop a Covid-19 testing system as a potential way of easing quarantine restrictions for passengers arriving in the UK, meaning more airports could launch similar testing facilities.

Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airlines all fly routes that now require pre-departure tests, including out of Heathrow’s Terminal 2 and 5.

It is hoped Heathrow’s newly launched testing facility will open up more routes between the UK and other countries, however, some parts of the world currently still require proof of a negative PCR test, which requires laboratory analysis.

Destinations including Cyprus, the Bahamas and Bermuda do not accept results of rapid LAMP tests at present.

Airport testing is already in place at destinations across Europe and beyond, with Italy offering rapid antigen tests that produce results within 30 minutes - an approach the UK is making steps to follow with the newly launched facility.

The hope is that more countries will change their rules to allow for other types of test, which could be administered on the spot at Heathrow.

Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive Shai Weiss said: “As long as the 14-day quarantine remains in place, demand for travel will not return and the UK’s economic recovery, which relies on free-flowing trade and tourism, cannot take off.

“Half a million UK jobs depend on open skies and a fully functioning UK aviation industry.

“The government’s global travel task force must act swiftly to replace quarantine with passenger testing in November.”

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister site, The Scotsman.