Step off an incoming plane at Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport and you enter a ghost town where masked travellers cast nervous glances at empty Duty Free shops and stroll past once bustling restaurants where staff now outnumber customers.
What was once Britain’s vibrant ‘gateway to the world’ is now almost entirely moribund, with acres of unused chairs and untrodden carpets symbolising the economic malaise that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought.
In normal times, roughly a quarter of a million free-spending punters pass through London’s busiest transport hub each day.
At present, the number is closer to 25,000. As a result, the airport has lost more than £1 billion so far this year. And counting.
Nurse Natasha Owen, 33, from London, gets ready to swab passengers at the testing facility in Heathrow Airport
Most surreal of all, in this sad context, is the spectacle that greets visitors to a brightly lit, football pitch-sized room which sits just off the main route that incoming passengers take to passport control.
Here stands a state-of-the-art Covid-19 testing facility, where a squadron of specially trained nurses is sitting ready to check thousands of new arrivals who come to the UK each day for the potentially deadly virus.
The idea is that after stopping at one of the 24 sterile booths, patients will be given a quick swab test. Results will be emailed to them in roughly seven hours. A second swab test, in a DIY kit which they take home with them, is carried out a few days later.
The Heathrow facility is similar to those currently operating at airports in Germany, Iceland and many other European nations.
Heathrow’s new cover testing facility allows passengers to book an appointment to be tested for coronavirus airside before baggage reclaim
It has been designed to allow arrivals from red-listed countries such as France and Spain to return to normal life (and their workplace) without having to spend two long weeks twiddling their thumbs.
For the privilege of saving time, these travellers will each pay roughly £100 to the testing facility’s operators, logistics firms Swissport and Collinson. It is hoped that the cost could fall over time, as footfall increases, planes take to the skies again and the airport, where around 76,000 people work, returns to some semblance of normality. That’s the theory, at least. Yet in practice, Terminal 2’s Covid testing hall is sitting empty. It has been this way since it opened almost three weeks ago.
In other words, at a time of mounting economic crisis, when mass testing is supposed to not only save lives but provide one of the only means for the wheels of capitalism to begin to turn properly once more, a multi-million pound facility that could be screening thousands of people daily is as mothballed as many of the planes hereabouts.
The facility is similar to those currently operating at airports in Germany, Iceland and many other European nations
Amazingly, this state of affairs is no accident. Instead, it turns out to be the direct result of British Government policy.
For we are currently one of the few major European nations that is refusing to sanction a proper Covid screening regime that will allow travellers who pass through our borders to avoid a lengthy and punitive stretch in quarantine.
In other words, passengers who decide to shell out for a test on arriving at Heathrow, and are then declared free of the virus, will gain absolutely nothing: they must still follow the same rules as everyone else and spend a fortnight in complete isolation.
If caught breaking this rule they face a fine, or even prosecution. Little wonder that virtually none are bothering to get tested.
The situation is not just inconvenient, it’s also very expensive. The International Air Transport Association estimates that current restrictions are costing the British economy no less than £650 million every single day.
A passenger gets her swab sample collected in a Covid-19 walk-in test centre at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany
It is one of the reasons why British Airways, our national carrier, is operating only 20 per cent of its normal flights, and why an estimated 100,000 tourism jobs will be lost once the furlough scheme comes to an end next month — in addition to the 38,000 that have already been affected.
Oddly, given that our political masters have spent weeks trying to convince people to return to offices and city centres — and therefore patronise restaurants, pubs and shops — the failure to countenance airport testing is causing harm to the very industries they most want to protect.
With visitors from a host of countries no longer able to holiday in the UK (unless they fancy spending two weeks behind closed doors), foreign visitor spending is down £60 million a day, or almost half a billion pounds a week.
It’s one of the reasons why London’s West End will lose an estimated £10 billion this year.
Rival tourist destinations are, by contrast, pulling out every stop to safely welcome free-spending holidaymakers.
Turkey, for example, is providing Covid testing labs in terminals, with arrivals given results within two hours.
A medical worker tests a passenger for coronavirus at a test centre in Vnukovo airport outside Moscow, Russia
Italy allows visitors two possible means to bypass quarantine: they can either provide border officials with a certificate showing that they tested negative in the previous 72 hours, or they can take a rapid on-the-spot test.
France, the world’s most popular destination with 87 million arrivals in a normal year, has required incomers from high-risk countries to take compulsory tests before isolating until the results come through 24 to 36 hours later.
Germany, where a ruthlessly efficient test and trace regime has produced a per-capita Covid death rate that is around a sixth of Britain’s, has been offering free tests in arrival halls since June.
Little wonder that, on the front line of this crisis, there’s a mounting sense of frustration.
Many moan about Government inertia and talk darkly of their multi-billion pound industry being abandoned. It’s no coincidence, they say, that while Rishi Sunak was happy to pose for cameras in Wagamama in a bid to tempt Britons back to restaurants, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has failed to pay a similar morale-boosting visit to any UK airport since the Covid crisis began.
‘There’s a total lack of engagement from the Government,’ is the stern verdict of Derek Provan, chief executive of AGS Airports, which runs Southampton, Aberdeen and Glasgow, and believes the sector is facing more job losses than the collapse of the coal industry in the 1980s. ‘Ministers . . . have completely disconnected.
‘We are isolated as an industry and they are not interested in talking to us about testing.’
A spokesman for Heathrow describes the failure to countenance airport testing as ‘madness’ adding: ‘It’s also costing jobs.
Melanie Huml, Minister of State for Health and Nursing, visits the coronavirus test centre at Munich Airport
‘Sixty per cent of the fleet is on the ground. Nobody is coming here on business, because the average business trip is three to five days and a two-week quarantine is out of the question.’
Particularly galling, the spokesman says, is the Government’s failure to even talk about how it might chart a path out of the crisis. No civil servant has yet bothered to inspect Heathrow’s testing facility, despite an open invitation being issued three weeks ago.
‘At the moment, we have thermal imaging cameras in our terminals which can take the temperature of every single passenger before boarding. But under GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] rules, we are unable to use that data to screen people.
‘So it’s actually illegal for us to prevent someone boarding a flight if they have a temperature and could be infectious. We want to make people feel safe when they fly and this would be a very good way, but there has been no effort to pass secondary legislation that would help us roll it out.’
A passenger wearing a face mask wheels her suitcase as health workers conduct tests on passengers at Capodichino airport in Naples, Italy
Downing Street has even failed to green-light a potential screening system that would allow every aeroplane passenger to be given an instant saliva test before boarding a flight, the spokesman adds.
‘We have the technology to run tests that can deliver a result in just 20 seconds, which is perfect for the travel industry because it does not create queues and would mean you could get on a plane knowing that the person sitting next to you is almost certainly not a carrier. These tests are more than 85 per cent effective, which Matt Hancock says is the required level of efficacy. We could roll them out, but again they still won’t amend the quarantine system.
‘It’s killing the industry. We are meant to be a major transport hub, but are behind at least 30 other countries on this.’
In Westminster, the stonewalling of potential airport testing regimes is said to be the subject of a growing rift between Downing Street and Conservative backbenchers increasingly alarmed at what they believe is the coming economic crisis.
‘Boris and Matt Hancock are dragging their heels because the first few months of this crisis, and their personal experiences of the disease, have made them very risk averse. Grant Shapps is a bit more supportive of the industry, but frankly still not doing enough,’ is how one senior Tory puts it.
‘They are all utterly terrified about a spike in infections, but frankly we are never going to eliminate this virus from the UK without some sort of vaccine, so in the meantime we need to find a way to live with it and go about our normal lives while taking sensible steps to reduce risk.
‘They need to show leadership on this, but as with too many things of late, leadership is lacking.’
A healthcare worker wearing protective equipment collects a swab sample from a passenger arriving from Istanbul to Mulhouse Euroairport in Saint louis, eastern France
It would perhaps be easier to defend the status quo if Britain’s current quarantine regime was an unbridled success. But in fact, the opposite is true. At present, travellers arriving from a country on the quarantine list (often with just a few hours warning) are required to fill in a lengthy online ‘passenger locator’ form, disclosing a raft of personal data about where they intend to spend the subsequent fortnight in self-isolation.
In theory, they will not be allowed into the UK until the authorities have received this information.
But in practice, according to internal figures disclosed to The Guardian this week, officials are only checking that around 30 per cent of travellers who arrive at the border have actually provided the required information.
The results of those checks suggest that around 10 per cent of all travellers to the UK from Covid-19 hotspots are not bothering to fill in the form. Those not caught, which is to say roughly two-thirds of this group, can simply disappear.
Even travellers who do fill in the form seem to be able to flout quarantine rules with virtual impunity.
Medical staff in PPE uses a swab test on a woman after a flight from Ibiza, Spain, to Turin, Italy, at the end of August
They have a roughly 20 per cent chance of receiving a telephone call to check that they are abiding by the onerous requirements of the system, which in theory prevents them from leaving their house to shop, exercise, or even walk the dog.
But there is nothing to stop them lying about their whereabouts, and almost no chance of being caught or punished if they do happen to break the rules.
Such are the limitations of the enforcement system that just three penalty notices for breaching quarantine were issued by UK authorities between June 15 and August 17. During that period roughly 50,000 air travellers were arriving in the country every day.
All of which suggests that, like many a bad system, the quarantine regime is simply making the lives of law-abiding citizens miserable while doing little to inconvenience those who regard it as too onerous to be worth following.
A border testing regime, properly administered, would surely provide a sensible alternative, which might protect public health while allowing the vast majority of travellers, who are of course free from coronavirus, to get back to work.
Heathrow Airport certainly thinks so, which is why they are even now building a second testing facility inside Terminal 5.
But so long as inertia prevails at the top table of Government, Britain will remain one of the few nations in Europe that is unable to get flying again.