The UK Health Security Agency will begin testing passengers arriving at Heathrow from China this week in a bid to detect potential new variants of Covid-19.
The new surveillance programme will sequence positive tests from a sample of passengers flying from China after the country relaxed its travel restrictions.
The scheme will offer swabs to perform PCR tests to up to 20% of arrivals from selected flights.
Anyone offered a test is encouraged to take it up, though this testing is not mandated for arrival and passengers will receive their test results via text or email.
The UKHSA has also asked the NHS to identify any patients hospitalised with Covid-19 who have a travel history which includes China in the preceding 14 days.
Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at UKHSA, said: “Testing passengers on arrival from China will allow UKHSA to rapidly detect any potential new variants that have not yet been picked up through international surveillance.
“The evidence so far suggests that the recent rise in cases in China is due to low natural immunity and low vaccine uptake, but this extra data will allow us to keep the situation under review.
“Covid-19 remains highly prevalent here in England too and it remains important to try to stay at home if you are unwell, wash your hands regularly, and try to keep rooms well ventilated.”
The government has already announced that people flying from mainland China to England will need to show proof of a negative Covid pre-departure test taken no more than two days before departure.
Airlines are required to check all passengers from China have negative pre-departure tests, and passengers will not be able to board a flight without providing evidence of a negative test result.
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