Boris Johnson is considering plans to dramatically slash quarantine restrictions for passengers arriving in the UK amid warnings of the huge damage they are doing to the economy.
It comes after MPs and business chiefs told the Prime Minister that the current 14-day self-isolation rules are pushing travel companies and airlines to the brink, crippling trade and tourism, and jeopardising the recovery.
The Mail on Sunday understands that officials are now looking at the option of testing people for coronavirus eight days after they arrive at UK airports and ports – although Government sources stressed no decision has yet been taken.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured earlier this week on a visit to HS2 in Solihull is considering changing the UK’s quarantine rules after ruling out such a possibility earlier this week
Mr Johnson is under pressure from his own back bench MPs to perform another policy U-turn
Airlines such as British Airways have complained about the impact the rules they are having on their businesses
We can also reveal that Mr Johnson has told Tory MPs of his hopes for a breakthrough ‘infectiousness test’, which could reveal the patients who test positive for the virus but cannot transmit it to others.
Such a test would transform the drive to get as many people as possible back to work.
The news comes as it was revealed:
- A cross-party coalition of grandees – including Tony Blair, David Davis and former transport secretaries – demanded a rethink on the controversial 14-day quarantine policy, with Mr Blair claiming that ‘the current travel nightmare’ was doing ‘untold harm’;
- Derek Provan, chief executive of AGS Airports, which runs Southampton, Aberdeen and Glasgow, warned the sector’s Covid-related job losses would be worse than the coal mining jobs bloodbath three decades ago;
- Ministers have ignored for months the key finding of an official Sage report showing testing of passengers upon arrival and then five days later detects 85 per cent of those infected.
Writing in The Mail on Sunday, former Tory Brexit Secretary Mr Davis issued a warning that the current approach ‘risked self-strangulation of our economy’ while Mr Blair claimed the ‘current travel nightmare’ was doing ‘untold harm’.
Insisting mass tests at British airports was part of the answer, the former Labour Prime Minister said: ‘The insistence on the current quarantine measures is doing huge harm to the British economy – quite unnecessarily so.’
Sir Patrick McLoughlin, who served as David Cameron’s transport chief, also claimed that it was ‘vital’ to move as soon as possible to more testing at airports, but added he was sure the Government had ‘good reasons’ for the current policy.
Rolls-Royce, who manufacture airline engines such as this Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbofan, is cutting 3,000 jobs
Former Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said a switch to a ‘much more limited quarantine’ and better testing at airports was essential to stop ‘this massive, blanket disruption’.
But he claimed the only reason fortnight-long quarantine periods had been introduced was ‘because the Government has been so incompetent at getting testing regimes established’.
In the past few months, tens of thousands of redundancies have been announced in the travel industry as many companies have seen profits wiped out by the collapse of air travel.
The pain is also being felt by manufacturing firms, which have stopped making parts for planes, baggage-handling firms whose staff are not needed in terminals and travel agents who are not selling holiday packages.
Rolls-Royce, which makes engines for planes, is cutting 3,000 jobs, while tour operator Tui has warned 8,000 globally could face the axe and airport services firm Swissport has announced 4,500 redundancies – half its UK workforce.
Last week, the Prime Minister surprised Tory backbench MPs at a meeting of the influential 1922 Committee by evoking the possibility of a so-called ‘infectiousness test’ – something the Government believes may be key to a return to some sort of normality.
Passengers arriving after 4pm yesterday from Croatia, Austria and Trinidad and Tobago were told they must enter quarantine for 14 days
One of the MPs present said: ‘The PM seemed to be saying that what matters isn’t whether you have Covid but whether you’re in danger of spreading it.’
Another MP at the meeting added: ‘We were led to believe fast testing is coming down the line.’ Steve Baker, the Tory MP who sits on the Commons Treasury select committee, said: ‘From what Boris said at the 1922, I’m praying that he’s got an ace up his sleeve on testing.
‘I cannot help thinking that if we had let profit-making labs do their own thing, we may have solved this problem.’
Mr Baker also called for ‘bold action’ to open up airports, adding: ‘I am furiously frustrated on behalf of my many constituents who work for airlines and airports.
‘Every day of dither and delay and bad advice worsens their prospects.’ The Department of Health confirmed it was looking at an infectiousness test but admitted it was not ‘clear if such a test will be able to do this or effectively enough’.
It came as researchers this weekend raised fears that test figures may have been over-estimating the number of new cases, warning that the main Covid test could be picking up fragments of dead virus from old infection.
Most people are infectious only for about a week, but could test positive weeks afterwards.
TONY BLAIR: We must use EVERY innovation to end ‘travel roulette’ if we want to prevent doing huge and long-lasting damage to UK plc
One thing I have learnt from my time in office is that it is much easier to give advice than to do the job – so I have every sympathy for those in Government charged with making big decisions regarding how we combat this virus.
But failing to make the right decisions will do immense and long-lasting damage to our economy. Since March, I have consistently argued that we must conduct mass testing of the British population to help control the spread of coronavirus, while minimising the economic damage of restricting movement. And it is key that we extend those mass tests to British airports as an alternative to the current requirement that all travellers from many of the most popular travel destinations in the world undergo a long 14-day quarantine.
Combined with tests, this period of isolation should be reduced to a more manageable five days, with significant benefits both to individuals and the economy.
Former prime minister Tony Blair, pictured, has urged the current PM Boris Johnson to concentrate on testing and tracing people infected with Covid-19 to mitigate against the impact of the disease on the UK’s economy since March
We now have a much better handle on how to treat coronavirus and who is most at risk from it. Under the age of 60, for instance, you are more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than Covid-19. The elderly and those with underlying conditions suffer the worst and need shielding the most.
Drugs such as dexamethasone have reduced the death rate for the most chronically sick. Yet we will have to live with Covid for some time. Until vaccines are available to market for mass distribution – which will take time, not all will work on all people and we don’t know for how long any immunity they provide might last – we have no choice but to manage the virus.
And that’s why, even as we continue to have thousands of new cases each week in Britain, we have opened back much of our economy. That’s why we encourage people to go to work, and back to school, to take public transport and to ‘eat out to help out’ the struggling hospitality sector. And yes, to travel.
Every decision taken about the easing is a mix of science and judgment, but when it comes to international travel, we need a much better mixture of the two. The insistence on the current quarantine measures is doing huge damage to the British economy – quite unnecessarily so.
The often opaque communication from the Government, which has caused chaos and confusion for holidaymakers, has come at a steep cost to employers in terms of lost productivity and to employees in lost wages.
In addition to the economic hit, quarantine also makes a dent on mental well-being. The policy is also doing untold harm to the airline industry itself.
Mr Blair has warned the lack of an effective Track and Test system is threatening the UK’s economy and especially the travel industry, pictured here Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal
What is the thinking behind 14 days? Because it is theoretically possible that someone contracts the virus before leaving abroad and doesn’t develop symptoms for 14 days. But even destinations exempt from this quarantine will still have the disease. It has not simply gone away.
So, we can go to Italy and return without quarantine; but if we go to France or Spain, we must quarantine for 14 days after returning. But if you go to Italy, you could still get it. Meanwhile, there are parts of France or Spain where the disease levels are very low and you are very unlikely to get it. All these rules around travel involve judgment, not exact science. The sensible thing, therefore, is to provide tests for people who re-enter Britain after travelling from non-exempt countries and free them from quarantine after five days if the test is negative.
If you are tested after five days on return from abroad, we know tests are accurate enough at this point to pick up the vast bulk of cases. Would it be 100 per cent? No, but no policy gives you that. Those with symptoms, of course, would continue to isolate and would be eligible for a follow-up test.
Failing to make the correct decision is causing immense damage to the UK’s economy
Other countries – Germany, Iceland, South Korea – now use extensive testing at airports to shorten quarantine. What’s more, you could provide testing for anyone coming in from abroad irrespective of where they are from, as the UAE does.
A five-day quarantine is manageable and can be factored into deciding when to go on holiday – rather than the current travel roulette. It is, therefore, much more likely to be adhered to. Whereas 14 days simply isn’t.
It is also vital we get the travel industry back on its feet, to preserve jobs and make money for UK PLC. Doing this will require ramping up testing capability but we should be doing this anyway.
We must utilise every innovation and capacity – mass testing would give people confidence to return to something like normality. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that the Government will now do this and this is good news.
But dealing with the current travel nightmare is the first step that we must now take. It just requires a political judgment which is well overdue.
OLIVER HOLT: So calm and so efficient… why can’t we do Covid tests at airports like Iceland?
A few minutes after the stark beauty of Iceland’s volcanic landscape appeared through the plane window on Friday afternoon, we were walking through the corridors of Keflavik Airport. Soon after passport control, police were waiting to check our conditions of entry.
The process was simple, calm and efficient. Passengers had been told to fill out an online registration form before leaving London that asked for a mobile phone number, the details of who you would be meeting and where you would be staying – a ready-made track-and-trace system.
At the checkpoint, police looked at the barcode on passengers’ phones, which had been sent once the registration forms had been completed. They were then directed to a series of booths where coronavirus tests were being conducted – or waved through to customs if they had chosen to undergo a 14-day period of quarantine.
Mail on Sunday football writer Oliver Holt travelled to Reykjavik and experienced Iceland’s efficient Covid testing system
I had an exemption from the Icelandic FA for journalists covering the Iceland-England Nations League match in Reykjavik yesterday, but I was asked to take the test anyway. I was led to a booth where a man swabbed my mouth with a spatula and stuck what looked like a giant cotton-bud so far up my nose it made my eyes water.
It was over in about 30 seconds. The process from then onwards was efficient. I was in my hotel room in Reykjavik city centre seven hours later when my phone pinged. ‘You have not been diagnosed with Covid-19,’ a text said. ‘Please help us trace Covid-19 by downloading the app.’
The next step for travellers who do not have an exemption is to stay in quarantine for five days. They are then summoned for a second test and if that, too, proves negative, they are notified within hours and are free to move around the country.
It is a tantalising glimpse of the way things could be in the UK. After I went to Lisbon for a Champions League match between Manchester City and Lyon last month, I flew back to Heathrow and walked through the airport unchallenged. I didn’t even have to show the form I had filled out before I left London
There was no hint of track and trace – moreover, I then had to quarantine at home for 14 days before I was allowed back to work.
The English system felt haphazard, inefficient and negligent. We are stuck with a process that feels like amateur night compared with the level of thoroughness I was greeted with in Keflavik.