A sample of passengers travelling from China into London’s Heathrow Airport will be invited to take a PCR test for COVID-19 on arrival. These tests will help us to better understand any variants that may be present in any positive cases.
Why are we only testing arrivals from China?
China is currently experiencing its largest and most serious COVID-19 wave since the start of the pandemic. This coincides with China easing some of the border measures it had put in place during the pandemic, which had included limits on the numbers of passengers permitted on international flights.
There are far fewer publicly available COVID-19 genomes shared from China compared to the UK. The opportunity to carry out genomic testing on samples provided by some of the incoming travellers is therefore important, as it will help us to better understand what COVID-19 variants are circulating in individuals arriving to the UK from China.
Why are we testing a sample of people?
The tests being offered on arrival are for surveillance purposes only and are intended to help us build a more complete picture of the COVID-19 situation worldwide. We only need to test a sample of travellers (we are inviting 20% of arrivals to take part) to gain a representative picture that is useful for this purpose.
While the arrival tests will not affect individual passengers’ onward journeys, anyone travelling to England from mainland China from 5th January 2023 will also be required to take a COVID-19 test before they depart and must show evidence of a negative result before being permitted to board a flight.
Should we be worried about new variants?
UKHSA already has multiple systems in place to detect and monitor the spread and prevalence of COVID-19 variants at home, and our data is shared quickly to help support health security efforts worldwide.
There is nothing in the publicly available data to suggest that there are any new variants currently circulating in China, but the measures we are putting in place at Heathrow will further enhance our surveillance capabilities and help us to spot variants of concern quickly if any do arise.
How to protect yourself and others
Vaccination is still the best way to protect yourself against becoming severely unwell with COVID-19, so it’s as important as ever to take up any doses when you’re eligible. If you’ve been offered a booster this winter and have not yet come forward, there is still time to book an appointment.
As we advised last April as part of Living with COVID, you should try to stay home when you have symptoms of respiratory infections including flu and COVID-19 and if you do have to go out, wear a face covering. There has been no change in this advice which remains in place as a sensible precautionary measure when you are unwell.
You can also help to protect yourself and others by covering your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze, washing your hands frequently and cleaning surfaces such as door handles and light switches.
You should particularly avoid meeting people at higher risk of becoming seriously unwell from COVID-19, especially those with a weakened immune system. Full guidance on living safely with respiratory infections can be found here.