Coronavirus testing at airports 'could be piloted within weeks'
Covid-19 testing at airports could be piloted within three weeks as part of efforts to reduce quarantine times for travellers from overseas, Stormont's chief scientific adviser said.
Professor Ian Young warned that a negative result upon arrival did not rule out someone recently infected developing the disease later.
One option could be to repeat the test five to eight days hence.
He said: "While there has been significant public interest in a test at the airport being negative...that is simply not a safe approach.
"If the individual has become infected in the two or three days before returning to Northern Ireland then they could be carrying the virus but would test negative at the airport and would be provided with false reassurance and could go on to spread significantly."
He is due to meet authorities in the rest of the UK next week to talk about pilot schemes.
"We have had ongoing discussions...about a pilot of airport testing of incoming travellers to estimate the infection."
He hoped such an initiative would begin within the next three or four weeks but the issue was being led by UK-wide authorities.
"The data will also inform a possible consideration of reducing the quarantine time in future."
Prof Young said the authorities could not make exceptions to the self-isolation rule for regions within countries on the watch list for high infection rates.
"We have had concerns that if we were to introduce regional differences for an overseas country it would be relatively easy for someone to get around those by travelling a short distance in the country concerned and returning to Northern Ireland or the UK via London or Dublin by a part of the country which was viewed as being safe."
He gave evidence to Stormont's health committee today.
"It is very difficult to know exactly how incoming travellers have moved around in a country overseas with significant regional variation in prevalence."
SDLP South Down Assembly member Colin McGrath asked why countries which disclosed similar infection rates to Northern Ireland could not be exempted from the restrictions.
He said: "This has the effect of confounding the travel industry, which is almost on its knees.
"Businesses will be wiped out."
He added: "Not everyone travels to lie on a beach for a fortnight.
"Many have family in different parts of the world and there are only so many months before Zoom meetings are not going to cut it."
Prof Young said countries could be significantly under-estimating their tally of new cases.
"That is where the qualitative element of decision-making comes in.
"We have to take account of the amount of testing being done in the other country and the trends in cases and come to the best estimate that we can."
Graham Keddie, managing director at Belfast International Airport, said airport testing could provide a lifeline to prevent further collapse across the industry and said the aviation business must be consulted and listened to during this process.
"We would support the introduction of sufficient Covid-19 testing at airports to reduce quarantine times, help increase consumer confidence and encourage growth in other sectors who rely on the service we provide," he said.