Are passports bringing in the new Covid-19 strains?
As the UK struggles to contain new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a Cambridge viral specialist has warned that the population is not being fully protected against fomite transmission – contamination through surfaces and objects – at passport control facilities at UK airports and ports.
John Creedy, who ran Cambridge-based biotechnology company Progressive Research System in virus purification technology until he retired, says: “I have many concerns regarding the current approach to handling the Covid-19 pandemic.
“One aspect is my attempts to obtain engagement from anyone in authority regards fomites transmission, in particular passport scanning at airports and ports.
“An infected passenger can contaminate their own hands through coughing or sneezing at any time and will of course pass this directly onto their passport when travelling. Everyone opens their own passport especially at the image page and of course is obliged to hand it to the immigration officer on entry to the UK.
“Any contaminated passport page is then placed directly down on to the scanner or inserted it into the scanner and of course immediately transfers any virus containing droplets or smudges onto the scanner plate.
“All subsequent passports are then of course exposed to this and thereby becomes a direct and immediate source of transmission to the hitherto uncontaminated passports.
“This is a classic focal point and potential multiple direct passage from an infected person. You only need a single infected source and it is then bad luck for anyone following behind in the queue. It need not be a recipient who has used the same flight, just the same queue they both chose at Passport Control.”
The revelation comes as the UK – now in its third lockdown – struggles to prevent further outbreaks, with door-to-door testing for the new and even more virulent South African outbreak while passengers arriving from South Africa are not required to quarantine.
Prof Andre Strydom, a specialist in the Psychiatry of Intellectual Disabilities at King’s College London, believes the official figure of 100 cases of the South African variant in the UK is “likely a huge underestimate”.
Prof Strydom, who tested positive for coronavirus following a visit to South Africa, said on Twitter: “Now the UK government is concerned about the #southafricanvariant of #COVID19. A month ago, when I got ill after getting off a plane from JoBurg, it took me 2 days to get through to @PHE_uk [Public Health England] to suggest testing me for variant. They only sent a test 2 weeks later.
“And when I asked about #TrackandTrace for co-passengers, given that I most likely got infected with the #southafricanvariant on the plane, I was told there was no need. To date, those on the flight with me has not been contacted.”
Prof Strydom has appeared on national TV flagging up his concerns, but Mr Creedy suggests that it is not only his fellow passengers who need testing, but also those using the passport control facilities.
“It seems clear that there were no special precautions taken to isolate Prof Strydom’s passport at Passport Control when he entered the UK,” said Mr Creedy.
A spokesperson for Stansted Airport said: “A whole host of additional measures have been in place since earlier this year to ensure the airport is safe and secure for passengers and staff, including extra specialist deep cleaning of operation areas and equipment.”
The Home Office policy appears to put the onus for protective measures on passengers.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Border Force take all reasonable Covid-19 precautions to prevent passing contaminants from one passenger to another, including increased cleaning of passport control desks and equipment.
“This is a global pandemic and we all have a part to play. Passengers must be responsible for ensuring they are taking all appropriate precautions to clean their property and hands regularly. Hand sanitiser is available to all passengers in public areas of airports.”
The Home Office added that one of Mr Creedy’s suggested solutions – using a film between the passport and the scanner – wouldn’t work.
The spokesperson said: “All Border Force officers adhere to the current Border Force Covid-19 Safe System of Work.
“Border Force cannot process passengers whose passports have been covered in clingfilm or any similar covering due to forgery risks and the need for Border Force Officers to be able to feel the passport and carry out detailed visual inspections
“Border Force staff are provided with gloves, masks and hand sanitiser and increased cleaning procedures are in place across all ports.”
“The clingfilm option which I suggested does not involve wrapping the passports up,” said Mr Creedy, “just the simple use of a disposable film between each handled passport.”