The clock struck midnight on Saturday. In just 13 hours, my partner and I were due to fly to Kenya with KLM for a work trip, but we still hadn’t received the results of our coronavirus test.
Our travel agent told us that we would need a negative PCR coronavirus certificate before travel, so we set about finding a test centre in the Netherlands where we are based.
There are many private healthcare companies offering PCR tests, and a quick Google led us to HetHuisartslab. A test, with a certificate, would cost €79 (£71) per person. If the test was completed before 3pm that day, the results would be sent through before midnight the following day: a 36-hour turnaround.
However, a couple of things were concerning from the outset. For one, we had to pay upfront and the only form of payment was through PayPal or via a Dutch bank account.
The online form was also very time-consuming to fill out and several times we lost the information we had plugged in when we clicked a link to read a disclaimer. We managed to make an appointment after our fourth attempt.
The test centre was located inside a small Portakabin next to a children’s playground in the town of Lelystad, around 55km from Amsterdam. It was very quiet and I joked that it was probably because the website form was such a chore to fill out.
When we arrived for our test we reiterated to the nurse that we needed the results to come through the next day and she said this would be no problem. For extra peace of mind, we took her mobile phone number and she said she could help us if there was a problem.
The test was pretty unpleasant, with a long cotton bud pushed into our nose.
But by midnight the following day, we hadn’t received our results. I had a very bad feeling we would miss our flight.
The following morning, with just hours to go before our flight, we emailed HetHuisartslab, as there was no telephone number on the website. We called the nurse, who said that she was very sorry but there was nothing she could do. We then filled out a ‘delayed results’ form on the HetHuisartslab website to prompt some action but no joy.
Luckily, our travel agent was able to move our flight and hotel reservations to Monday for free.
Eventually, our results came through via email on Saturday night: negative.
But because our flights were rebooked for Monday and we were tested on Thursday, the results were out of date. PCR tests have to be done 72 hours before arrival, and we would need to redo it. HetHuisartslab offered no refund, apology or option of redoing the test.
Following such a bad experience with the lab, we found a more reliable and user-friendly website, Coronalab.eu. The test was easy to book and payment was taken after the test. This firm promises a 24-hour turnaround and there are 11 locations in the Netherlands.
Our experience with HetHuisartsLab left a bitter taste but it appears I am not alone: delayed coronavirus test results have been a problem globally, leading to travellers not being able to make their flights.
According to a UK Government report around NHS Test and Trace, an IT systems failure at one of the laboratories resulted in a delay to the processing of results between 30 July and 5 August.
This meant that only 43.6 per cent of test results from home-testing kits and satellite test centres were received within the 48-hour window recommended by public health experts to effectively stall the virus’s spread and conduct contact tracing.
In the US, a nationwide poll of almost 20,000 people by Harvard University, Northeastern University, Northwestern University and Rutgers University revealed similar issues with test turnarounds. People who had been tested for the virus in July reported an average wait time of around four days and, overall, about 10 per cent of people reported waiting 10 days or more.
When I Googled HetHuisartsLab, taking some time to read reviews rather than booking in haste – it has a 2.7 rating out of five on Google – I discovered travellers who had had the same experience and complained of delayed results.
Ankie Renique, who works as a medical translator in the Netherlands, is one such traveller. Her results (negative) came in 15 hours too late and she missed her holiday to Zakynthos in Greece in August.
She explains: “I did manage to rebook my trip to Greece a fortnight later but no one ever got in touch to apologise.
“I discovered that the company’s social media pages including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn had been taken down and I realised from investigating online that they have ruined many people’s plans.
“I would never use the company again. Luckily the rules changed for Greece before my next flight so I didn’t need to get another PCR test.”
On Google reviews, MissMissy1969 says: “Like many other the same bad experience with the lab. The say results within 16/24 hours mine came after 53 hours! Terrible service [sic].”
And Mark Stewart vented after his experience with HetHuisartsLab: “DO NOT GET A CORONA TEST DONE HERE!!!!! Allowed 48 hours between testing and flight. Was assured of results following day between 15:00 - 00:00. Did not arrive. MISSED FLIGHT. No one picked up phone or email. Returned next day to testing centre. Five other people were also here in same predicament [sic].”
But amid the negative feedback, there are some glowing reviews of the lab, with Lely1992 stating “the service was great” and h maamri adding: “Maybe it depends which centre you go to. I went to the new one in Kanaleneiland (Utrecht) a few days after it opened. There was no line at all, the staff was very friendly and I got the results in less than 24 hours.”
I contacted HetHuisartsLab and its parent company U-Diagnostics for comment on its testing protocols, but have not received a response.
With Covid-19 certificates becoming increasingly necessary for international travel, there are ways you can check if companies offering them are legitimate.
In the UK, there’s the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (Ukas). Many of the PCR testing centres state their Ukas accreditation on their websites, and it is possible to look them up on the Ukas website.
It’s worth nothing that the NHS Covid testing system should not be used by those requiring a negative result in order to travel. NHS FitForTravel says on its website: “Covid-19 testing for the purposes of international travel is not available on the NHS. Pre-travel COVID-19 tests may be available in the private sector, however, private testing processes and accuracy of results may vary. This should be discussed with the test provider before payment.”
A spokesperson from Action Fraud, the UK's national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, warns travellers to be vigilant.
“Criminals have been using the pandemic as a way to trick victims into parting with their money, personal information, or buying goods or services that don’t exist,” they say.
“If you require a coronavirus test to travel, always do your research before handing over your money and look at reviews of the company you are buying your test from.
“Be sure that the company you’re paying is legitimate and that the payment is for genuine services. Always remember to stop and think, it could protect you and your money.
“Contact your bank immediately if you think you’ve fallen victim to a scam and report it to Action Fraud.”
The ordeal with the PCR testing taught me that it’s important to research the centre properly beforehand.
In the end, we made it to Kenya safely with our negative tests to hand from Coronalab.eu. The sunshine felt even more deserved after the worry of missing out on our trip completely.
How to make sure your PCR test is legit
Check with the FCDO whether the destination you want to travel to requires a negative PCR test before arrival.
Check reviews of the company online and on social media.
Make sure there is a way of contacting the company to chase up your results - via telephone preferably.
Some countries, such as Barbados, specify the accreditation body that tests must be certified by; check this beforehand.
Pay for the test with your credit card, which offers some protection for purchases over £100 under Section 75.
Find out more about Covid testing here.