Senior Government adviser says screening at airports would be useless

Senior Government adviser says screening at airports would be useless

April 22, 2020

Screening passengers at airports would be useless because most who travelled with coronavirus wouldn’t be showing symptoms, says Government advisor

  • England’s deputy chief medical officer defended the Government’s decision not to screen 
  • Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said checks would miss cases with no symptoms 
  • Tourists have criticised the ‘shocking’ lack of testing when arriving in the UK 
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

England’s deputy chief medical officer has defended the Government’s decision not to screen passengers arriving at UK airports for coronavirus. 

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said that because of the virus’s incubation period of up to 14 days people could still ‘sail’ through any screening at airports. 

He said a ‘basic problem’ with port entry checks was that they would not pick up cases of people infected who weren’t showing any coronavirus symptoms, such as a fever.  

Tourists have criticised the ‘shocking’ lack of testing when arriving in the UK during the pandemic. 

England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said that because of the virus’s incubation period of up to 14 days people could still ‘sail’ through any screening at airports without symptoms

Some passengers said other countries required medical questionnaires and health checks at land borders and travel terminals and appeared to be taking the pandemic more seriously. 

Earlier this month Heathrow Airport’s chief executive called for an international common standard on medical screening so people can ‘travel with confidence’ once the crisis recedes. 

Professor Van-Tam told the Downing Street daily briefing on yesterday: ‘The problem is that people can be infected before they get on the flight and the incubation period for this virus is up to 14 days. And it’s typically five days.

‘So I can fly back… on a long flight and I can become infected in that country before I get on the aircraft, and I will sail through Heathrow with absolutely no symptoms at all.

‘I’m not being untruthful, there is nothing to declare. I won’t have a fever, I won’t be picked out.’ 

‘But when I get to my home in the north of England, at that point I may develop symptoms a few days later, and clearly the port of entry screening hasn’t worked.’

Professor Van-Tam said the proportion of new cases coming in from abroad ‘would be miniscule’ compared to the ‘force of infection’ in the UK at present. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the number of arrivals had ‘dropped dramatically’ so the UK did not carry out testing at airport. 

He told Good Morning Britain last week that about 15,000 people were arriving each day. 

Heathrow warned it expects passenger numbers for the whole of April to be down by more than 90% year-on-year

Heathrow chief John Holland-Kaye claimed a single system for assessing passengers’s health will help demand for air travel recover.

He said: ‘Now is the time to agree a common international standard for healthcare screening in airports so that when this crisis recedes, people can travel with confidence and we can get the British economy moving again.’  

Heathrow warned it expects passenger numbers for the whole of April to be down by more than 90% year-on-year.

The collapse in demand saw the airport move to single runway operations on April 6, and two terminals will be closed in the coming weeks.

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