Tests at Heathrow: the way forward for world travel?

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Few passengers reach the far south of the arrival level at Heathrow Terminal 5. takes shape.

“Open wide and say ‘aaah’ for as long as you can,” said David, the nurse.

“I have five points of contact deep in my throat that I need to get, so if you keep saying ‘aaah’ it makes it easier to get to those points.

Anyone who has had a PCR test for the coronavirus will know the feeling, but this procedure is different in two ways.

First: the rubbing of the back of my throat, quickly followed by a gentle exploration of my left nostril, does not take place in an Ikea parking lot. Instead, I’m in a smart white “pop-up” clinic in what is normally the busiest terminal at Europe’s busiest airport.

Second: this is a different test called LAMP. I can confirm that the user experience is roughly the same as a PCR test, the ‘gold standard’ used by the NHS. Both tests seek to prove that the virus is currently in your body, as indicated by the presence of RNA genetic material in the virus. But what happens to the skillfully extracted sample is very different.

PCR tests are performed in batches in remote laboratories for processing, which involves gentle baking to stimulate reproduction of any RNA. But a LAMP test can be run at room temperature near the test center, with the result known in an hour or less.

For the traveler and the travel industry, these two distinctions could be crucial. An internationally accepted system for freeing aviation from the grip of government restrictions and passenger uncertainty may well depend on the existence of high-performance test centers dedicated to the needs of airlines, their personnel and airlines. their passengers.

The facilitation of the travel process will also depend on the mutual acceptance by individual governments of the biosecurity protocols.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever come to a single agreed standard,” says Scott Sunderman, general manager of medical assistance and safety at Collinson – the company that organized the test center in association with material handler Swissport and Heathrow itself. .

“But I think we’re going to come up with a framework that will allow the traveler to watch on their device. It will tell them exactly what is required for where they are going, what kind of test they need and what kind of time frame they need to take the test.

“That person can then go to a lab or go to a facility like this here, do the test, the test results will be downloaded to their device, and then travel. “

But where can they travel, exactly? At the moment, the facilities at Heathrow – in Terminal 2 as well as in Terminal 5 – are only available to people traveling to Hong Kong and, soon, Tokyo.

The £ 80 test would be ideal for passengers to Cyprus, who all need proof of a negative Covid-19 result before boarding their planes for the Mediterranean island.

Currently, holidaymakers have to find a private test somewhere near their home and typically pay £ 150 for this privilege. But passengers to Larnaca cannot be checked in for Covid before checking their baggage at Heathrow.

The Cypriot Ministry of Health requires that every traveler “have a certificate attesting to a negative PCR test for the virus”.

Governments believe they know what works and many have yet to be convinced that LAMP tests are also reliable.

Mr Sunderman says the evidence is mounting that the two tests are equally effective. And he also acknowledges the irony that the country’s only coronavirus testing center aimed specifically at travelers is in fact working on behalf of foreign governments – to minimize damage at the destination, rather than the UK.

Collinson was ready, willing and able to test landing passengers at Heathrow as early as July. But the government has been scathing about the value of on-arrival testing, known as “day zero”.

Grant Shapps, the transportation secretary, explained to the online convention of Abta, the travel association, last week why he considers arrival tests unnecessary.

“We know for sure that if you test people on day zero it’s not going to help,” he said.

“You would only recover about 7% of those who are asymptomatic upon exiting this flight on day zero.”

Yet Mr Shapps also spoke of a pilot program involving the UK, US and Singapore involving pre-departure testing, and even suggested that the quarantine could be dropped for passengers on a diet. specified test.

Way to go: Heathrow testing center’s only initial destination(Simon Calder)

Meanwhile, Collinson’s health chief is pleasantly surprised by the resumption of testing by crew and passengers.

“It’s a momentum in the right direction,” he says.

Since global aviation has allowed the coronavirus to take hold so quickly, many people have bemoaned the continuation of international aviation. They may see initiatives like the pop-up test center not as a solution but as part of the problem.

“How to spread the virus and not give a damn about people dying,” tweeted a viewer from Good Morning Britain after an article on the Heathrow tests.

“The reality is this virus has been around for a while, and we’re going to have to learn to live with it,” says Scott Sunderman.

“We’re going to have to learn to keep doing business while she’s here. We are looking for ways, as we are doing here, to do it safely with the virus in the background. “

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