Step off an incoming plane at Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport and you enter a ghost town where masked travellers cast nervous glances at empty Duty Free shops and stroll past once bustling restaurants where staff now outnumber customers.
What was once Britain’s vibrant ‘gateway to the world’ is now almost entirely moribund, with acres of unused chairs and untrodden carpets symbolising the economic malaise that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought.
In normal times, roughly a quarter of a million free-spending punters pass through London’s busiest transport hub each day.
At present, the number is closer to 25,000. As a result, the airport has lost more than £1 billion so far this year. And counting.
Nurse Natasha Owen, 33, from London, gets ready to swab passengers at the testing facility in Heathrow Airport
Most surreal of all, in this sad context, is the spectacle that greets visitors to a brightly lit, football pitch-sized room which sits just off the main route that incoming passengers take to passport control.
Here stands a state-of-the-art Covid-19 testing facility, where a squadron of specially trained nurses is sitting ready to check thousands of new arrivals who come to the UK each day for the potentially deadly virus.
The idea is that after stopping at one of the 24 sterile booths, patients will be given a quick swab test. Results will be emailed to them in roughly seven hours. A second swab test, in a DIY kit which they take home with them, is carried out a few days later.
The Heathrow facility is similar to those currently operating at airports in Germany, Iceland and many other European nations.
Heathrow's new cover testing facility allows passengers to book an appointment to be tested for coronavirus airside before baggage reclaim
It has been designed to allow arrivals from red-listed countries such as France and Spain to return to normal life (and their workplace) without having to spend two long weeks twiddling their thumbs.
For the privilege of saving time, these travellers will each pay roughly £100 to the testing facility’s operators, logistics firms Swissport and Collinson. It is hoped that the cost could fall over time, as footfall increases, planes take to the skies again and the airport, where around 76,000 people work, returns to some semblance of normality. That’s the theory, at least. Yet in practice, Terminal 2’s Covid testing hall is sitting empty. It has been this way since it opened almost three weeks ago.
In other words, at a time of mounting economic crisis, when mass testing is supposed to not only save lives but provide one of the only means for the wheels of capitalism to begin to turn properly once more, a multi-million pound facility that could be screening thousands of people daily is as mothballed as many of the planes hereabouts.
The facility is similar to those currently operating at airports in Germany, Iceland and many other European nations
Amazingly, this state of affairs is no accident. Instead, it turns out to be the direct result of British Government policy.
For we are currently one of the few major European nations that is refusing to sanction a proper Covid screening regime that will allow travellers who pass through our borders to avoid a lengthy and punitive stretch in quarantine.
In other words, passengers who decide to shell out for a test on arriving at Heathrow, and are then declared free of the virus, will gain absolutely nothing: they must still follow the same rules as everyone else and spend a fortnight in complete isolation.
If caught breaking this rule they face a fine, or even prosecution. Little wonder that virtually none are bothering to get tested.
The situation is not just inconvenient, it’s also very expensive. The International Air Transport Association estimates that current restrictions are costing the British economy no less than £650 million every single day.
A passenger gets her swab sample collected in a Covid-19 walk-in test centre at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany
It is one of the reasons why British Airways, our national carrier, is operating only 20 per cent of its normal flights, and why an estimated 100,000 tourism jobs will be lost once the furlough scheme comes to an end next month — in addition to the 38,000 that have already been affected.
Oddly, given that our political masters have spent weeks trying to convince people to return to offices and city centres — and therefore patronise restaurants, pubs and shops — the failure to countenance airport testing is causing harm to the very industries they most want to protect.
With visitors from a host of countries no longer able to holiday in the UK (unless they fancy spending two weeks behind closed doors), foreign visitor spending is down £60 million a day, or almost half a billion pounds a week.
It’s one of the reasons why London’s West End will lose an estimated £10 billion this year.
Rival tourist destinations are, by contrast, pulling out every stop to safely welcome free-spending holidaymakers.
Turkey, for example, is providing Covid testing labs in terminals, with arrivals given results within two hours.
A medical worker tests a passenger for coronavirus at a test centre in Vnukovo airport outside Moscow, Russia
Italy allows visitors two possible means to bypass quarantine: they can either provide border officials with a certificate showing that they tested negative in the previous 72 hours, or they can take a rapid on-the-spot test.
France, the world’s most popular destination with 87 million arrivals in a normal year, has required incomers from high-risk countries to take compulsory tests before isolating until the results come through 24 to 36 hours later.
Germany, where a ruthlessly efficient test and trace regime has produced a per-capita Covid death rate that is around a sixth of Britain’s, has been offering free tests in arrival halls since June.
Little wonder that, on the front line of this crisis, there’s a mounting sense of frustration.
Many moan about Government inertia and talk darkly of their multi-billion pound industry being abandoned. It’s no coincidence, they say, that while Rishi