Flights to US thrown into chaos as Heathrow COVID testing centre hit

Flights to US thrown into chaos as Heathrow COVID testing centre is struck down by a ‘plumbing issue’ for second day – as Virgin Airlines says UK passengers to ANYWHERE in America will now need a negative test to board

  • Virgin Atlantic Airlines said UK passengers to anywhere to US need negative test
  • But part of one of the terminal’s Covid testing lab is closed over ‘plumbing issue’
  • It has caused ‘knock-on effect’ on the speed of turn-around at the airport
  • New York Governor said people coming from the UK to the US  should be tested  

All passengers from the UK flying anywhere in America will now need a negative Covid result to board any Virgin Atlantic flight – but may find it harder after one of the terminal’s testing labs was partially shut by a ‘plumbing issue’.

In a further deepening of the crisis engulfing the country, the airline said it needed people to take a negative LAMP or PCR Covid-19 test to travel.

It is currently running jets to New York-JFK, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Atlanta at the moment and the move is an escalation from yesterday’s developments.

Virgin hailed its partnership with Heathrow rapid testing lab Collinson as it confirmed the news this morning.

But the quick-result Covid facility admitted today it had been forced to close part of one of its labs over a leak in one unit – impacting the speed customers got their tests back. 

It brewed up a perfect storm for those attempting to fly in ever-changing rules and regulations. 

People queue to enter the departures area at Heathrow Airport in London this week

The Collison lab, pictured here, provides rapid testing to passengers wanting to fly abroad

A graph showing a comparison between US and UK coronavirus cases this year

A spokesman for Virgin Atlantic confirmed to MailOnline this morning: ‘Virgin Atlantic will be implementing new pre-departure Covid-19 testing for all customers travelling from London to the United States from December 24.

‘With the health and safety of our customers and people always our number one priority, we will require all travellers to present evidence of a negative LAMP or PCR Covid-19 test, taken up to 72 hours prior to departure, including on-site at the airport.

‘Throughout the crisis, Virgin Atlantic has been championing a robust pre-departure passenger testing regime in order to reopen the skies at scale and safely replace border restrictions. In August we were the first UK airline to implement on-site rapid testing for our crew and with our partner Collinson, we already offer pre-departure rapid testing for customers on several routes including Hong Kong and Barbados.

‘This is the latest addition to a range of rigorous, multi-layered health and safety measures to ensure that all customers fly safe and well. We will work closely with our transatlantic partner Delta Air Lines on an aligned customer offering. More information will be provided to customers due to depart from London Heathrow to the US in the coming days, including New York flights. We are in close contact with Governor Cuomo’s office to communicate these plans.’

Collinson said its Terminal 2 lab, which is where Virgin flies from, had been hit by a problem.

A spokesman said: ‘None of our supplier relationships have changed. Due to a plumbing issue at Heathrow Airport on Sunday, we were forced to close part of our T2 testing facilities. 

Passengers leaving Terminal 4 at JFK airport on Moday after arriving in from Europe and the UK

JFK airport on Dec 21 2020 as passengers arrive from overseas at Terminal 4 – where most British flights come from

The arrivals board on Monday as more than 40 countries banned travel from the UK 

JFK’s Terminal 4 on Monday morning where dozens of flights were scheduled  from the UK  

A traveler in a full hazmat suit leaves Terminal 4 and heads towards the air train on Monday

A passenger arrives on a flight from London amid new restrictions to prevent Covid’s spread

A traveler wears a full Tyvek suit on the Air Train at JFK Airport on Dec 21 2020

PCR vs Lateral flow: More chaos as Britain and France clash over type of testing used for truckers

The French government is demanding that any travellers from the UK, including truckers, take PCR tests before arriving in the country, which can take up to three days to return a result.

A PCR test can cost upwards of £180 per person, with the swab needing to be processed in a lab. 

The UK, on the other hand, favours faster tests which are not lab based and give a result within 15 minutes.

These rapid coronavirus tests, known as lateral flow tests, are ones that can be done on the spot using portable equipment.

They are faster and cheaper than lab-based PCR tests, which the government uses to diagnose people, but are less accurate. 

In a lateral flow test a swab is used to get a sample from the person’s nose or throat and it is then processed in a small machine that tries to detect the coronavirus by mixing the sample with something the virus would react with.

If there is a reaction in the mixture it suggests that the person is carrying coronavirus. If not, they get a negative result. This process can be completed in as little as 15 minutes.

You take your own swab though a professional on site processes it through the machine.  

However, as the swabs are taken by people themselves, the accuracy of the test could be hampered as they may not push the swab deep enough to get enough of a sample.   

These lateral flow tests differ from the gold standard PCR test – known scientifically as polymerase chain reaction testing. 

PCR tests also use a swab but this is then processed using high-tech laboratory equipment to analyse the genetic sequence of the sample to see if any of it matches the genes of coronavirus.

This is a much more long-winded and expensive process, involving multiple types of trained staff, and the analysis process can take hours, with the whole process from swab to someone receiving their result taking days.

It is significantly more accurate, however. In ideal conditions the tests are almost 100 per cent accurate at spotting the virus, although this may be more like 70 per cent in the real world.

This compares to a much lower sensitivity in lateral flow tests, with a trial of one type used in Liverpool suggesting they miss around 50 per cent of the people who would test positive with PCR.

Extreme accuracy may be a drawback for PCR now that so many people have been infected, however, with the tests able to detect shreds of the virus in people who recovered weeks ago and are no longer infectious, which may lead them to have to self-isolate unnecessarily.

Lateral flow tests are more likely to miss people who are carrying the virus but, experts say, do have value as a way of weeding out people carrying large amounts of the virus and therefore most likely to be spreading the disease.

‘While the facilities can currently still receive and swab travellers, the test processing area of the facility has been impacted and forced to close. Therefore, all T2 tests are being shuttled over to T5’s lab facilities for processing, which is having a knock-on effect on the speed of turn-around for both facilities.

‘We are working closely with Heathrow Airport to reopen the T2 labs as soon as possible, and in the meantime we are doing everything we can to ensure travellers receive their test results as quickly as possible.

‘We have also explained the situation to passengers and asked them to ensure that they are leaving adequate time for test results to be processed in line with airline check-in timings.’ 

On Monday British Airways, Virgin and Delta said they will require passengers traveling from the UK to just New York City to test negative after being asked by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to take action. 

The airlines agreed on Monday as 40 countries around the world banned travel from the UK over a new strain of COVID-19 that has been detected there. The new strain is 70 percent more infectious than what has been seen previously. 

Cuomo had asked the federal government to ban all travel from the UK but having had his request fall on deaf ears, he went to the airlines instead.  

United Airlines said it would stick to its current procedures but would not enforce testing on its flights to Newark.

It was unclear if Delta and BA’s rules will enforce negative tests on flights to other parts of the US, or if it will only apply to flight to New York.

But passengers on all of the airlines are expected to pay around £90 for their own tests then present them on departure. 

Currently, travelers can only enter the US from the UK or continental Europe with an exemption. Generally if a person has been in Europe, Iran, China and or the UK in the last 14 days, they cannot get into the country as per Trump’s March executive order. American citizens and greencard holders can get back into the country. 

Once they arrive in New York, the state law is that they test negative within 72 hours of arrival, quarantine for three days and then test negative again on the fourth day, or quarantine for 14 days. 

The CDC guidance for people coming from overseas is that they quarantine for 14 days, if they can get into the country at all 

But it has not stopped dozens of flights from the UK arriving in the US every day and comes as the worrying new variant spreads.  

More than 40 countries have now banned flights from the UK entirely because of the strain and 120 countries are demanding that travelers from the UK test negative before they are allowed to board planes.

On Sunday, Argentina and Chile announced the travel ban on direct flights, which went into effect Monday in both nations. 

On Monday, New York Governor Andrew said the new strain was likely already in the US and that it was a ‘serious problem’. 

He previously asked the federal government to ban travel from the UK but, having been ignored, is now appealing to the airlines to test passengers before they leave. 

‘I have no legal authority on international travel. 

‘Only CBP has that jurisdiction, that’s my issue here – I can’t halt flights. 

‘However, you’re landing on New York soil…my preference would be what the other countries did – halt travel.  

Passengers arrive on a flight from London amid new restrictions to prevent the spread of  COVID-19 at JFK International Airport in New York City, U.S., December 21, 2020

JFK airport on Dec 21 2020 as passengers arrive from overseas while restrictions tighten around the world 

‘Show us the evidence’: Scientists call for clarity on claim that new Covid-19 variant strain is 70% more contagious 

The Prime Minister has warned the new variant of coronavirus may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than previous strains and could overwhelm the NHS.

But last night one scientist demanded greater transparency over the number that shut down swathes of the UK.

Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care, expressed scepticism over the 70 per cent figure.

He said: ‘I’ve been doing this job for 25 years and I can tell you can’t establish a quantifiable number in such a short time frame.’

He added ‘every expert is saying it’s too early to draw such an inference’.

Professor Heneghan said there was no doubt this time of the year, the ‘height of the viral season’, was a difficult time for the NHS. But he said failure to put out the basis of the figures was undermining public trust.

He added: ‘I would want to have very clear evidence rather than ‘we think it’s more transmissible’ so we can see if it is or not.

‘It has massive implications, it’s causing fear and panic, but we should not be in this situation when the Government is putting out data that is unquantifiable.’

He added: ‘They are fitting the data to the evidence. They see cases rising and they are looking for evidence to explain it.’

‘If you can’t do that, negative test required before they get on the flight,’ he said. 

Cuomo did not ask the airlines to implement the same mandate for flights going to other states and it’s unclear if they will or why they didn’t all along. 

Rapid tests are relatively easy to come by in the UK for around £100.

‘This is very concerning. They don’t know if there’s any higher rate of death, if the vaccine is as effective with the new strain. 

‘This is take two. This would be a mutated virus, coming back….if they believe it’s so serious that Boris Johnson did a 180 degree turn and then closed parts of the UK, it’s serious, my friends.

‘We are on notice about it – why don’t we act intelligently for a change? 

‘Why don’t we mandate testing or halt the flights now. Many other countries have done this,’ he said.   

The new variant has now been detected in Australia, Denmark, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Italy, UK.  

It is not thought to be any deadlier than the more common strain but is far more spreadable and has sent the UK into an intense lockdown with just five days before Christmas. 

Cuomo said that he refused to allow New York to become a ‘victim’ again through lack of federal action.

‘For us to be incompetent and take no action, it’s just not a viable option for us in New York. 

‘We learned this the hard way and aren’t going to go through it again. We have been victimized. 

‘There are three airlines that come from the UK – British Airways, Delta and Virgin. They, daily, are bringing several thousand passengers a day. 

‘I am asking those airlines to add New York state to the list  of the 120 countries that require tests before the flights leave the UK. My request is simple – please add New York to the list of countries. I know we’re not a country but as governor of New York state, I’ve asked them to do that.

‘British Airways, I have spoken to myself and they have voluntarily agreed to add New York to the 120 countries that will do pre-boarding testing.

‘They’ll start that tomorrow,’ he said. 

British Airways Terminal at JFK airport on Dec 21 2020 as passengers arrive from overseas

COUNTRIES THAT HAVE BANNED BRITISH TRAVEL

Argentina

Belgium

Bulgaria

Canada

Chile

Colombia

Crotatia

Denmark

El Salvador

Estonia

Latvia

Lituania

Finland

France

Germany

Hong Kong

Italy

India

Iran

Ireland

Israel

Jordan

Kuwait

Morocco

Norway

Netherlands

Poland

Portuga

Romania

Sudan

Switzerland

Sweden

Turkey

Pakistan

 

Travel to and from London was suspended on Saturday night which triggered a mad dash of travelers to train stations. 

There is no travel allowed between England and Scotland. Much of Europe is now sealing off the UK too. 

Travel has been banned to France, which sparked a sudden threat to food supply and sent people into a panic-buying frenzy in supermarkets. 

Trump’s surgeon general and President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for the position both have said they don’t see heightened danger from the virus mutation.

‘We don’t even know if it’s really more contagious yet or not, or if it just happened to be a strain that was involved in a super-spreader event,’ Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on ‘Face the Nation’.

‘Right now, we have no indications that it is going to hurt our ability to continue vaccinating people or that it is any more dangerous or deadly than the strains that are out there and we currently know about.’

Dr Vivek Murthy, Mr Biden’s pick for the surgeon general post, echoed Mr Adams’s comments.

‘While it seems to be more easily transmissible, we do not have evidence, yet, that this is more a deadly virus to an individual who acquires it, there’s no reason to believe the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus as well,’ Dr Murthy said. 

Slaoui and Giroir’s comments followed reports on Friday that Trump is considering lifting America’s travel ban on the UK and Europe as early as next week. 

Trump is expected to authorize the lifting of the travel ban through an executive order on Tuesday, The Telegraph reported, citing senior sources in the travel industry.

Yet on Sunday a slew of countries banned travel from the UK. 

Canada announced a ban last night on passenger planes in a notice to pilots.

The restrictions do not apply to cargo planes or planes landing for safety reasons, according to the notice to airmen, which said the move is ‘necessary for aviation safety and the protection of the public.’

In Britain, ahead of a meeting of the Cobra committee today chaired by the Prime Minister, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said emergency measures were being put in place to cope with a backlog of lorries heading for the channel ports. 

But he sought to play down the potential impact, stressing that container freight was not hit by the French ban on travelers.

The markets tumbled in response to the escalating coronavirus crisis and the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period on December 31.

More than £33billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within minutes of opening, as the index dropped more than 2 per cent, although it later recovered to a fall of around 1.4 per cent.

Along with France, countries across the world announced restrictions on UK travel following the disclosure that the highly infectious new strain is widespread across south-east England.

Italian authorities said the mutant strain had been detected in a traveler who recently returned to the country from the UK. French health minister Olivier Veran said it was already ‘entirely possible’ the new variant – VUI 202012/01 – was already circulating there, although tests had not detected it. 

Health officials across the UK recorded 35,928 positive cases – a new record figure – and another 326 deaths yesterday

Daily deaths in the US are also at their highest since the start of the pandemic 

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