While huge question marks linger over summer holidays abroad, one thing is clear: there will be Covid tests.
Although some countries, such as Greece, have already suggested that fully vaccinated travellers will not have to provide proof of a negative test, many others may still demand evidence that holidaymakers are Covid-free. And with those under 18 unlikely to be jabbed for some time to come, families could be facing huge added costs to their holidays.
On return to the UK, travellers will certainly have to take a test. The Government has confirmed that a ‘traffic light system’ will come into force when international travel restarts. Countries will be categorised as "red", "amber" or "green" depending on the proportion of its population that has been vaccinated, its infection rates and the prevalence of variants of concern. Even travellers from “green” countries will have to pay for and take at least two tests: one shortly before departure to the UK and one on arrival.
Most countries require arrivals to show "gold standard" PCR test results, which are lab-analysed and generally provide results within 48 hours. However, an increasing number of destinations, such as Italy, also accept certain rapid tests which offer results in minutes and are usually cheaper.
Here, we break down how the respective tests work and what to look out for when booking one this summer.
How do I get a PCR test for travel?
With free NHS tests still reserved for those with symptoms, travellers must book private tests. There are two options: ordering a home test kit or booking an appointment at a clinic/drive-through test centre. Most home kits will arrive within 24 hours and should be sent back the same day. They will then be analysed in a lab and you should receive your results within 48 hours – various companies have different guarantees.
If your test is negative, you should then be sent a certificate declaring you Covid-free. However, concerns have been raised that, as there is no standardised certificate, they could be forged.
Furthermore, it is not always clear how much information is required in each country. As the free NHS test results are just a text message and short email, there is no guarantee that border officials would deem this acceptable. Some companies, such as LloydsPharmacy, whose home kits cost £119, ease fears with example certificates online, which include the name, address and telephone number of both the laboratory and company, plus the name and date of birth of the recipient. Crucially, the date the sample was taken and processed is also recorded. When ordering a kit, it is certainly worth clarifying what will be detailed on your certificate.
Tui, Britain's largest holiday provider, announced on May 6 – ahead of the Government revealing it's "green list countries" – that travellers who book with the company will be offered tests for £20, more than half the cost of the cheapest to date.
The pack includes one lateral flow to be used pre-departure back to the UK and one PCR test for use on or before day two of their arrival back in Britain
Otherwise tests at clinics tend to have a quicker turnaround. Harley Street Health Centre in London, which offers tests for £175, guarantees results by 8pm the next day. More broadly, DocTap has a network of clinics across London and offers a range of coronavirus tests, including a next day option, for £125.
Beyond the capital, Boots has launched a PCR testing service in 100 stores across the country. It promises results within 48 hours and is currently priced at £99. The advice to customers is to book appointments for between 60-72 hours before their flights.
Another option is Vivo Clinics, which has PCR testing centres in 23 UK cities and charges from £119 for its standard service, or from £144 for same-day results.
The highly rated Corona Test Centre has five clinics in London, plus outposts in Manchester and Birmingham. It provides a reassuring 'fit-to-fly' certificate, which is signed by a doctor (from £145).
Gatwick has a drive-though test centre where PCR tests cost only £60 for passengers, though with results generally provided the next day this would mean two trips to the airport.
What about rapid tests?
Boots offers a rapid testing service at five stores for £79.99 (in London, Manchester and Birmingham), with results typically available in as little as an hour and uploaded on an online portal.
Elsewhere, 15MinCovidTest has locations across England and offers antigen tests with fit-to-fly certificates for £44.98.
Be sure to check the exact entry requirements of the country you are visiting before booking a rapid test.
How much should my test cost?
This is where things get a little murky – a quick Google search reveals home tests on sale for an eye-watering £500. There is no doubt that analysing tests and returning results in an extremely short window is not a cheap endeavour, but the disparity in pricing is stark. As a guide, there seems to be a pricing consensus of around £120 for kits that return results within 48 hours, with steep rises for shorter time frames.
Many test providers have cut costs to around £60 with the cheapest previously being just under £45 - and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is shortly expected to unveil an updated government website making it easier for travellers to find the cheapest authorised test deals.
So far, Tui has offered its customers the cheapest deal yet. As well as the £20 package for "green list" countries, it is also offering holidaymakers travelling to “amber” list destinations a £50 package for one pre-departure lateral flow test and two inbound PCR tests for day two and day eight of their 10-day home quarantine.
Andrew Flintham, managing director of Tui, said: “We have always believed that cost-effective testing solutions, as well as maximum flexibility, will make travel a possibility this summer and beyond.
“Our research has shown that customers are looking forward to their much-needed holiday overseas, but affordable and easy testing solutions was imperative to make this a reality.”
Nick Burnett and Dr Alasdair Scott from C19 Testing, which charges £110 for an at-home test, say that some are engaging in “exploitative pricing.”
They say: “We are operating on thin margins, but as a collective of healthcare professionals, we are not looking to profiteer.” Dr Scott adds: “I wouldn’t be involved if the company wasn’t honest, transparent and evidence-based.”
When choosing a test to order then, it’s certainly a good idea to look at whether doctors are involved and ensuring that the company uses accredited UK lab analysis.
A number of airlines now have links on their websites to test providers and offer cut-price options for their customers. EasyJet has a deal with Randox, which gives passengers access to tests for £72 rather than the usual price of £120. Similarly, British Airways provides a discount code for a number of companies.
Private rapid tests conducted by a trained professional generally cost around £60 to £80.
What happens if your PCR results don’t arrive in time?
With some countries, such as the Seychelles, requiring a certificate issued no longer than 48 hours before departure, time is of the essence.
Most companies guarantee a 48-hour turnaround, although it's worth checking the terms as some offer a long window. LloydsPharmacy, for instance, promises a certificate "within three working days." In the event that the results are delayed, which isn't a common occurrence, there's not a lot to be done. Test companies should (and generally do) offer full refunds, but without a certificate travel plans will have to be altered or cancelled.
That said, for late-planners and victims of laboratory bungles, a few companies do offer same-day results. The London General Practice offers test dispatch 24 hours a day, seven days a week and promises results the same day – if swabs are returned by 7am. The service also includes a follow-up video consultation with a doctor and costs £315.
For a last-gasp in-person PCR test, the Fleet Street Clinic guarantees same-day results, with a “typical turnaround time of two to six hours” for £495.
How accurate are PCR tests?
There is some debate about the accuracy of home tests versus those performed at a clinic, as people could self-administer the test incorrectly. However, as the Government itself sends out a huge number of home tests every day, one would hope there is faith in the accuracy.
Travel health specialist Dr Richard Dawood says that test accuracy is “very good” and suggests that potential problems with the certificate system lie elsewhere, with timings and complex flight routings.
However, with any coronavirus test there is also the possibility that your sample might prove inconclusive. Private Harley Street Clinic says: “Sample failure is rare, but if this happens, the sample needs to be repeated which takes another 24 hours. If the second repeat fails again, a brand-new collection is required.”
It remains unclear how quickly after exposure to the virus you might test positive. The NHS says the optimal time to get a test is within the first five days of symptoms, with less clarity on the pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. It is not unthinkable, therefore, that you have your in-date coronavirus certificate, but then start showing symptoms on the way to the airport.
What tests do I need when returning to the UK?
As outlined above, travellers returning to the UK will need to pay for a number of tests, both before departure and when they arrive. Travellers from "green list" countries will have to take one PCR test once back in the UK (on or before day two), while those coming from “amber” or “red” countries will have to take two PCR tests (one on or before day two and another on day eight). All travellers must take a pre-departure test before returning to the UK.
The Government has confirmed that vaccinated people are not exempt from taking tests amid concerns that new variants could emerge in "green list" countries.