Obligatory PCR tests – both pre and post international travel – appear to be an on-going requirement, even once border restrictions ease. From couriered options and postal tests, to government-approved providers and private clinics, Olivia Palamountain reviews the options.

PCR tests are here to stay for the foreseeable. Prohibitively expensive, time-consuming and uncomfortable, these “polymerase chain reaction” tests have cemented themselves as a necessary measure in the fight against the Covid, despite murmurs deriding their efficacy, as well as the admin and costs involved.

At present, anyone who is lawfully allowed to travel abroad from the UK – and then chooses to return home – must undertake at least four PCR tests: one prior to departure from the UK, one before their inbound journey, one on day of their return and another on day eight.

The final two come as a package and are a legal requirement that must be purchased from a government-approved provider by travellers returning home. Also obligatory is a period of eight days of self-isolation at home (as long as each test is negative) starting from the day after landing on UK turf.

An additional test may be taken from a private provider on day five of this period of self-isolation to secure early release from the minimum governmental prerequisite of eight days.

Today (April 9), the UK government gave an update on its “traffic light” system for international travel. According to the BBC: “Under a traffic light system, countries will be categorised based on risk, including a watch list for those that could move from ‘green’ to ‘amber’. Passengers will have to take Covid tests before leaving and on returning – even from low-risk green countries.” (This is a useful graphic from The Telegraph.)UK traffic light systemIt adds: “The travel industry has expressed concern about the cost of testing and wants cheaper lateral flow tests.” With any luck, testing will be made more affordable or free, something Globetrender wholly supports.

The Times reports that, under new plans, the government will stipulate only one PCR test on arrival in England from green countries and private test providers will be urged to cut costs.

Additionally, holidaymakers may be able to take a free rapid lateral flow test on holiday and use it while overseas to satisfy the requirement for a pre-flight test, eliminating the cost and inconvenience of testing abroad.

What’s the difference between PCR and Rapid Lateral Flow tests?

Around 1 in 3 people with COVID-19 do not have symptoms. Rapid lateral flow tests help to find cases in people who may have no symptoms but are still infectious and can give the virus to others.

Cheaper than PCR tests, they can detect people with higher viral loads, are relatively inexpensive, do not require laboratories and provide results rapidly.

The test is performed in the same way was a PCR, however results are usually available in only 30 minutes.

According to The Daily Mail, ministers are said to be considering giving travellers free lateral flow tests to take abroad to be used before they start their return journey home from a green list country.

Some airlines want the testing requirement for travel from green countries to be ditched entirely or replaced with lateral flow tests. Others want the UK to adopt the same policy as in France, where travellers can get free, government-subsidised PCR tests at some airports if they show their plane ticket.

Pre-departure PCR test: tried and tested

I decided to take my first test with Melio Health, in readiness for a flight to the Maldives via Doha. The company has a huge range of clinics having recently teamed up with Superdrug pharmacies in the UK to bring PCR testing to the high street, making it a convenient choice for travellers nationwide.

Superdrug Nurse Clinics are offering the in-clinic swab test to Melio Health customers, priced at £149. The test includes a “Fit-to-Fly” certificate to enable foreign travel.

There is a choice of two options for PCR testing – express at £199, which guarantees same-day results, and standard at £120, wherby results are sent through by 9pm the day after testing.

The portal is user-friendly and easy to navigate, with the various tests (Melio also offers Antibody tests and the Test to Release scheme) clearly marked.

After registering an account, I was able to choose my nearest test centre (Unilabs in Euston) and pick a date from the calendar. There were plentiful appointments available every day and I received a comprehensive confirmation email containing my unique test number and a reminder of the date, time and location as well as to bring valid Photo ID (such as a passport or driving licence) to the clinic.

Unilabs is in an ultra-accessible location, around five minutes walk from Euston station. There is a fair bit of building in the area at present so it’s worth leaving extra time to navigate around the works.

I arrived at the clinic ten minutes before my appointment as directed, and after my documentation was verified, it was straight through to begin the PCR test.

As we all know by now, PCR tests involve having a swab at the back of the throat and up into the nose. I lay back on the standard-issue surgery chair and let the nurse search for Covid in my face. Talk about light touch. I hardly felt a thing and it was over in under a minute.

The swabbing technique seems to have come a long way since my first PCR test last September, which felt like the clinician was prodding my brain. In all of my recent experiences, the swab simply nudges in and around the nostril, which isn’t unpleasant at all.

I was in and out of Unilabs in under ten minutes, whereby the clock started on the wait for my results. With a flight to catch within 48 hours, there was no time to mess about. Because I was feeling anxious, I checked the portal incessantly – despite being told that I would receive a text message when the results were through.

As it happens, my results came through long before I received a text notification and well before the 9pm cut off. A lag in the system isn’t ideal, but no harm done – I was fit to fly, good to go and armed with a negative result.

At the airport, my certification was carefully reviewed at the Qatar Airways check-in desk and a copy taken for their records (so be warned if you reckon you can wing it without one).

PCR tests on return: tried and tested

Arranging the government-approved PCR test package on return is a little more complicated. Firstly, you will need to buy this package before you land show so that you can add the order number and provider on your passenger locator form (another government requirement). Anyone that fails to order and take the day-two and day-eight tests may face a penalty of up to £2,000.

There have been reports of people making up order numbers and fudging their forms to circumvent paying for this package and the authorities are clamping down.

On my return to London Heathrow in late March 2021, border control was fierce. Not only did they ask for my test order number, they also asked to see proof of purchase (such as an invoice) on my phone, which required bringing up the relevant emails.

A list of approved providers is found on the government website. There are nearly 100 to choose from, ranging in price between £169 and £575. The average seems to be around £200.

According to the website, the price discrepancy differs from provider to provider for a number of reasons, for example to reflect different levels of customer support. Some of the providers include further add-ons, such as couriered delivery into their prices.

The test package prices listed are for the provider’s standard service, which meets the government’s minimum standards. This includes:

  • both test kits
  • delivery and (where relevant) test swabbing
  • full evaluation of the test samples
  • relevant genome sequencing activities
  • result reporting to the patient
  • data reporting to PHE

As the debate about how and when to open borders intensifies, wannabe travellers have a hero in Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps.

According to The Daily Mail, he has ordered ‘profiteering’ private testing companies to slash the cost of laboratory-based PCR checks to make international travel more affordable as he said people can now ‘start to think’ about booking a summer holiday abroad.

Mr Shapps admitted this morning (April 9) that ‘costs are definitely a concern’ and people ‘have to accept we are still going through a global pandemic’ which means the checks cannot currently be abandoned.

But he vowed to ‘drive down the costs’ of the PCR tests as he warned companies who charge too much will be removed from the Government’s recommended provider list.

The ‘luxury’ PCR testing service: London Medical Concierge

I wanted to see both what a “blow the budget” splurge offered, as well as a test in the basic price range so chose two different providers: London Medical Concierge for the full complement of day-two and day-eight tests as well as a day five Test to Release (£843) and Qured for a day five Test to Release only (£99).

London Medical Concierge is one of the most expensive providers listed – and for a host of good reasons, as it turns out.

Aimed primarily at London-based customers, LMC offers a courier service inside the M25 whereby a nurse arrives at your home to take your test for you and then drop it to the lab by hand the same day. Not only does this minimise the risk of self-testing incorrectly, it also swerves the possibility of delays when posting your sample back to test providers.

Additionally, instead of booking through a portal or an app, LMC users receive a personal touch from the team of Patient Liaison Managers who orchestrate bookings via email. This could be particularly useful for people less comfortable with technology or those looking for a hosted, reassuring experience.

After sharing some rudimentary details (age,date of birth, flight number etc) with Persephone, she generated a unique code for my passenger locator form and then got in touch the day before each test to confirm a one-hour time slot. Since returning travellers are in isolation anyway, it wasn’t difficult to find a suitable time, however, it still made the experience ultra-convenient and bespoke.

The testing experience itself started as it meant to go on – smoothly, professionally and with minimal fuss or faff.

A revolving team of charming nurses turned up bang on time on my doorstep to take every one of the tests, each session lasting around a minute of my time. Results came through via an email with an encoded link within 24 hours. Happily, I was negative each time. On Day five (which happened to be my birthday) I was able to leave the house and get on with celebrating.

At about £1,000 for the trio of tests, working with London Medical Concierge does not come cheap. But for anyone needing guaranteed service, results, efficacy and organisation, I can’t recommend the company enough.

The ‘cheap’ day five ‘Test to Release’ experience: Qured

As a foil to the LMC experience I signed up with Qured’s “Day Five Test to Release”, a self-administered postal test which, at £99, seemed to me like a good example of the standard offering.

Qured promises results in 24 hours from receipt of sample at lab and free special delivery and return shipping, arriving on your fifth day of quarantine. An expedited courier service (within M25) is also available for an additional £29 and an in-person practitioner test for an additional £70 (bringing the total cost for this option to £169).

Similarly to Melio Health, Qured requires users to create a login to their portal. Instructions are easy to follow and sign up was a breeze. However, I had trouble accessing the site every time when browsing with Safari, so switched to Chrome (the team need to look into this glitch).

Day five of my self-isolation fell over the Easter bank holiday weekend (Good Friday). I was warned in advance by the Qured team that this meant there might be postal delays. Since I knew I had things covered with LMC, this didn’t worry me as I wanted the experience as much as the results.

The test arrived on time as promised and I unpacked it on day five as directed. Inside my package was my test, a returns envelope and masses of literature – a confusing amount.

There were various instructions as to how to “activate” the kit: using either a pin contained on the outer bag that contained the test (there wasn’t one) or via my user portal. Additionally, there was conflicting advice on whether or not I had to hand-label the sample vial with my personal details.

According to Qured: “This is because DHSC have recently changed reporting requirements and so you have to activate a kit online with your sample date and time rather than write it on a tube. So this has meant us playing catch up and integrating our partner labs portal for activating etc.”

After taking my test, and activating the kit via my booking confirmation on the portal, I wrote my name and the date on the vial in teeny tiny letters (better to be safe than sorry) and popped it into the pre-paid returns labelled bag.

I couldn’t find any information as to whether I had to drop the parcel at the Post Office in person or whether I could leave in a post box. Since my local post offices were closed (Easter weekend, remember) I chose the latter.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, therefore, that I didn’t receive my negative test result until a full five days later. Had I not arranged the couriered option with LMC, this would have rendered the Test to Release (and additional cost incurred) null and void.

Timing was not on my side, as I was warned in advance by Qured. However, if I were them, I’d have suggested I went for their couriered option instead – or perhaps put me off buying the Test to Release pack altogether.

Spending an additional £70 seems like a small price to pay to guarantee a result and halve self-isolation. If I’d only tested with Qured, it would have been £99 down the drain and a Bank Holiday weekend birthday spent self-isolating.

It’s worth mentioning that you cannot use the Test to Release scheme if you have been in or through any country that is on the travel ban red list in the ten days before you arrive in England.

If you’re planning to use the Test to Release scheme, you must still take a test on or before day two and on or after day eight, unless you’re exempt. Even if you get a negative result from your Test to Release and are released from self-isolation, you still need to take a test on or after day eight to check that you do not have Covid-19.

The verdict

If you live in London and can afford a couriered test, it’s absolutely worth the money. I was unlucky with my timings and I imagine at a usual time of year Qured would have come through with the goods. That said, the company needs to edit and streamline their tech and their literature to improve the user experience.

It seems strange that Melio Health is not on the government-approved list of providers for the day-two and day-eight scheme (perhaps they need to work on their personal relationship with Matt Hancock), however you can use them for Test to Release.

The list of providers is changing all the time so do keep up-to-date with the government website directly. And, as is clear from the team at Qured, advice for practitioners and clinics is shifting too, so be extra vigilant and read all the information provided when administering and processing your at-home test.

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