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Chris Middleton reports on how wearable devices are helping to monitor the health of incoming travellers to the UK – but serious questions remain about why millions of people are still passing through Heathrow.

Five hundred wearable sensors provided by Abingdon-based Sensium Healthcare are part of Heathrow airport’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The system is being deployed among incoming travellers who have been quarantined for two weeks at a repurposed Holiday Inn near the airport.

The wireless Sensium devices are worn on the chest and measure temperature, pulse, and respiration every two minutes to alert care staff of any deterioration in a traveller’s condition.

As well as monitoring vital signs, data gathered by the devices will contribute to the Remote-COVID study, a research programme that aims to understand which people are most severely affected by the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The moves are funded by the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, set up by Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and its charity CW+. The two organisations are jointly overseeing both the research and care programmes.

The fund also aims to provide ventilators, blood gas machines, computer hardware, digital tools, and support for frontline staff.

The news comes amid media criticism of Heathrow still being open to international travellers from Europe, the US, and Asia when many other nations have closed their borders to all but necessary supplies.

According to a statement published on the airport’s website, terminals currently remain open on a “scaled-down basis” as it helps deal with the repatriation of British citizens and the transport of essential cargo.

The number of flights operating via Heathrow has been reduced by 75 percent, but there has been a 200 percent increase in cargo-only flights every week, it says.

“Vital medical equipment and supplies, including ventilators and medicines, as well as food are being flown via Heathrow, helping to combat the impacts of the global pandemic,” reads the statement. “We continue to work with government experts, health professionals, and our airline partners to safely handle all flights.”

That said, many people remain baffled by the lack of testing for incoming travellers to the UK alongside the quarantine facilities, which opened at the end of February.

While the exact number of passengers currently flying into and out of the UK each week is unknown, 25 percent of normal passenger numbers could equate to as many as 400,000, if planes are full.

According to Heathrow’s most recently published data, 3.1 million passengers passed through the airport in March 2020, down from over 6.5 million in the same month last year.

That’s only a 47 percent reduction, and far more British citizens than have been reported as stranded overseas during the global lockdown. The figures call into question the airport’s claim that it is mainly handling repatriations and cargo. According to a report published on 16 April by the Guardian, just 65,000 Britons remain stranded overseas by the crisis, out of a previous total of “hundreds of thousands”.

So the question remains: who are the millions of other travellers and why are they not being tested? The airport confirms that no temperature checks are currently being carried out at terminals for passengers on incoming flights. “This is not a measure that Heathrow decided itself; we would like to reassure you that Heathrow is following the guidance and advice of Public Health England (PHE) on which measures are required to contain and respond to coronavirus effectively.

“According to PHE’s medical, clinically informed, and evidence-driven approach to identify those at risk, temperature checks are not a required or effective way of keeping the public safe.

“The most efficient and proven measures to combat the spread of this virus is for people to regularly wash their hands thoroughly and apply the government’s social distancing rules.”

However, temperature and other vital signs checks are deemed essential for travellers who are quarantined after arriving at the airport, it seems. But only for 500 of them at a time.

  • In related news, Cambridge University-developed machine learning (ML) tools are being trialled by the NHS to help predict demand for intensive care beds and ventilators. The COVID-19 Capacity Planning and Analysis System (CPAS) has been designed to support hospitals in planning treatments and allocating scarce resources.

Image source: CW+