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To mitigate SARS-CoV-2 transmission risks from international air travellers, many countries implemented a combination of up to 14 days of self-quarantine upon arrival plus PCR testing in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.


To assess the effectiveness of quarantine and testing of international travellers to reduce risk of onward SARS-CoV-2 transmission into a destination country in the pre-COVID-19 vaccination era.


We used a simulation model of air travellers arriving in the United Kingdom from the European Union or the United States, incorporating timing of infection stages while varying quarantine duration and timing and number of PCR tests.


Quarantine upon arrival with a PCR test on day 7 plus a 1-day delay for results can reduce the number of infectious arriving travellers released into the community by a median 94% (95% uncertainty interval (UI): 89–98) compared with a no quarantine/no test scenario. This reduction is similar to that achieved by a 14-day quarantine period (median > 99%; 95% UI: 98–100). Even shorter quarantine periods can prevent a substantial amount of transmission; all strategies in which travellers spend at least 5 days (mean incubation period) in quarantine and have at least one negative test before release are highly effective (median reduction 89%; 95% UI: 83–95)).


The effect of different screening strategies impacts asymptomatic and symptomatic individuals differently. The choice of an optimal quarantine and testing strategy for unvaccinated air travellers may vary based on the number of possible imported infections relative to domestic incidence.


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