'All clear' Covid 'passports' aim to let air travellers bypass quarantine

Charles Hymas
·3-min read
Passengers in the arrivals hall at London Heathrow - Aaron Chown/PA
Passengers in the arrivals hall at London Heathrow - Aaron Chown/PA
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

The world's first coronavirus "passport" is being launched on Wednesday to enable people to travel without having to quarantine.

Passengers using two of the world's biggest airlines – United Airlines and Cathay Pacific – and travelling through London Heathrow will be the first to test the technology, which is backed by the US government.

The volunteer passengers will upload their coronavirus test results from a validated laboratory onto a digital health pass up to 72 hours before departure. The airlines, and airport and border officials, will be able to scan the digital data on the pass to see if a person is free of the virus.

If the trials of the scheme are successful, it will allow passengers to reduce their time in quarantine in line with the self-isolation regulations and health requirements in whichever country they arrive.

The aim is to create a standardised global testing system in which governments and airlines can trust passengers' results because they are from reputable laboratories and on a recognised health passport.

It comes as the UK Government is due, on Thursday or Friday, to unveil plans for testing which could enable UK arrivals to reduce their 14-day quarantine by up to six days.

Ministers are expected to announce a taskforce to develop the plans, something likely to provoke anxiety in the aviation industry over further potential delays.

The coronavirus pass is being launched by the Commons Project, a non-profit trust, and the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with government representatives from 37 countries. 

The first passengers will use it on Wednesday on Cathay Pacific flights between Hong Kong and Singapore.

The first UK passengers to use it will test it next week on United Airlines flights between London Heathrow and Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the major airports of the New York metropolitan area.

The trials are being observed by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Diane Sabatino, the CBP deputy director, said the pass offered the potential "solution to build confidence in air travel".

Commons Project officials have also been in talks with the UK Government. They aim to extend the trials to more countries in the next three months in a bid to persuade governments to integrate passport into their quarantine schemes.

Dr Bradley Perkins, the organisation's chief medical officer, said: "Without the ability to trust Covid-19 tests – and eventually vaccine records – across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists."

London Heathrow's process improvement director, Mark Burgess, said: "For some time now, Heathrow has been calling for the creation of a common international standard, and cross-border pilots such as these could help governments across the world and the industry to unlock the benefits of testing in aviation.

"We're looking forward to reviewing the findings of these trials and using the learnings to support the recovery of an industry that provides so many jobs and economic opportunities globally."

The digital pass can log coronavirus test results, other health data required by any country and vaccinations.

When the passenger's data complies with the destination country entry requirements, the pass generates a QR code that can be scanned securely and privately by airline and border staff.