The devil, as they say, is in the detail. In May, the Government announced a loosening of pandemic travel restrictions – and that much-longed-for summer holiday finally seemed in reach. But things weren’t to be so simple. Travelling abroad was not against the rules, but strict border rules were put in place – namely, the new traffic-light system. Countries have been divided into three categories: green, amber and red, depending on their Covid threat level. And in each case there is a different set of rules, should we want to visit.
Those returning from amber or red-list countries are required to quarantine. Travellers coming back from a green country – a list that is increasingly small – aren’t. But in all cases, Covid testing is required.
And it’s not just one test, or even one type of test. Most countries require holidaymakers to have taken a test – either the ‘gold standard’ PCR test, or a 15-minute rapid lateral flow test – before they travel, or on arrival.
Many EU countries are considering introducing a Covid-19 passport to ease travel between member states and eligible third countries who have low coronavirus infection rates
As the UK is not part of the scheme, holidaymakers hoping to travel to Spain, Italy and Portugal could be obliged to take up to five Covid-19 tests to keep onside the law
However, it doesn’t end there. The new British system requires a number of tests to be carried out prior to and after returning home. This means that taking a holiday in popular destinations such as Spain, Italy and Portugal – all on the amber list at time of going to press – could mean as many as five tests per person.
Free NHS Covid tests aren’t permitted for use by returning travellers, to ensure enough tests are available for Britons with Covid symptoms. This means the only option is to pay for one from a private company, racking up the cost of a family break.
And while the Government website provides a list of 414 approved firms, they charge vastly differing amounts for their services, with packages ranging from £27.49 to £575 per person.
‘We are being exploited by these companies,’ said aviation analyst Alex Macheras. ‘Many European countries offer pre-flight tests for free. Instead, here we’re being forced to pay extortionate prices.’
In an effort to compile a definitive guide to navigating this potential minefield, last week The Mail on Sunday contacted every firm on the Government’s list, to find out exactly what they were offering for the money. Shockingly, we discovered many were misleading potential customers about the true cost of their services.
A pattern emerged among those claiming to be the cheapest: one price was listed on the gov.uk website, but after clicking through to the checkout, this figure appeared to spiral.
This newspaper also obtained correspondence from the Department of Health and Social Care warning of a ‘significant public health risk’ as a result of poor practices carried out by some private firms.
And, worryingly, we discovered that many firms have not been inspected by UK testing watchdogs. But, in truth, it IS possible to travel without falling foul of rip-off merchants. Here’s how.
Don’t be fooled by rock-bottom prices
The lists of testing companies on gov.uk can be viewed in order of price, supposedly for what it would cost, in terms of testing, per person, to visit either an amber or green list country.
However, not all is as it seems. Click on a company’s name and you’ll be taken to its website, where it outlines the different tests it offers. In many cases, the initial price you’ll have seen will be for their cheapest option: testing ‘on site’, which would involve visiting its clinic to carry out a self swab. For instance, Expert TMS Limited claims on gov.uk that an amber-list package – separate PCR tests that must be taken on day two and day eight of post-trip quarantine – for one person would cost £49.99.
It takes a bit of hunting on its website to find this offer, which is buried beneath many more expensive options, listed under ‘Unsupervised On Site Testing’. It involves attending its facility at Taylor Business Park, at Risley in Warrington, to carry out a self-swab. Fine, if you live close by, but probably not much use otherwise.
Browsing the government website provides a confusing list of private firms willing to supply Covid-19 tests which will allow you to go on holiday with promised low prices difficult to find on the individual company websites
The price for its amber-list home test kit, called ‘Mandatory Day 2 and Day 8’, is £149.99.
Similarly, 100 Covid Clear appears on gov.uk appearing to offer amber-list packages at £49, but this is available only in-clinic in Gloucester. The at-home day two and day eight test package costs £198.
The same thing happened when we clicked on the 20 cheapest companies listed on gov.uk.
‘In many cases, the prices of these tests are not what they first appear,’ says Macheras. ‘It may say one thing on the website, but by the time you get to checkout you are paying far more.
‘Companies know how essential these tests are to customers, so make it as difficult as possible for people to make a good assessment.
‘The sheer lack of regulation is shocking. There is no body enforcing and monitoring the claims on this site. I’d recommend anyone thinking of buying tests, take some time in advance to shop around, so you aren’t forced to make a last-minute costly decision.’
It’s also important to note that anyone visiting an amber-list country will also need to take a pre-departure and pre-return test – dubbed Fit To Fly tests. Few companies include these in their amber-list packages, so these have to be added on, upping the cost. And, of course, a Test To Release test – which can be taken on day five after returning home, in order to end quarantine early – will be an additional cost.
‘A good price for an amber-list home-test package, including pre-departure and pre-return Fit To Fly tests, is about £150,’ said Macheras. ‘For a green-list package, which includes one Fit To Fly test and a day two PCR test, you should be looking at just under £100.’
For the best deals, look to airlines
Airlines are eager to get people flying, so have partnered with some of the more trusted test providers to offer discounted test packages. Crucially, you don’t need to have booked a flight with that airline to use their discount codes.
British Airways is working with 11 test providers and is offering 15 per cent discounts for all of them – their website ba.com has links to all their websites, and gives discount codes to apply at the checkout.
One of the best deals is with mega-lab Randox. It offers an ‘Algarve Package’ that includes two Fit To Fly tests along with a day two and day eight PCR tests for £189 per person, with the BA discount.
Airlines such as British Airways are offering money-off codes for Covid-19 tests needed before flying – though this requires an additional trip ot the airport three days before your trip
The code is BritishAirways43. Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic offer the same discount as BA on Randox tests – the codes are FLYRYANAIR and VIRGIN21. EasyJet is offering £5 discounts for Randox single PCR tests, meaning they cost £43. The code is ejh2021.
With the same easyJet code, you can get 20 per cent discount on tests with Collison, but this isn’t as generous as it might appear.
Tests have to be done at one of the company’s sites, which are located at all the major airports, including Manchester and East Midlands. This means an additional trip to the airport in the days prior to flying.
With the discount, Collison’s ‘Amber PCR Package’ – the two PCR tests needed after return – costs £132 per person. However, Fit To Fly tests must be purchased separately, meaning a trip to an amber-list country would set you back £231.60 in tests per person.
Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic is offering discounts on Prenetics home-testing kits – it offers a range of amber-list packages, with either a lateral flow pre-departure test, at £179 for the package, or a PCR pre-departure test, costing £211.
The majority of the UK’s international airports, including Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow, are also housing drive-in testing sites, which customers can book visits to in advance.
Popular holiday destinations such as Faro, pictured, have been placed on the Government’s amber list – requiring additional Covid-19 testing
These are typically cheaper than prices at high-street testing clinics, such as Boots (which charges £99 for a single PCR test). However, with PCR testing, results can take 48 hours, so it would involve going to the airport, then going home, then going back.
Some airport hotels such as Sofitel and Hilton are offering free 24-hour PCR tests to those who book overnight accommodation – rooms start at £179.
Travel company Tui has partnered with Chronomics and is offering green-list packages for £60 – which include a PCR test and a lateral-flow test – to customers who have booked a holiday with it.
Can private test firms be trusted?
The Government says it does not ‘endorse or recommend any particular test provider for quarantine test packages’ but ensures they all ‘meet the minimum required standards’. But what does this mean?
Ordinarily, if a company provides medical tests, then they must pass an inspection by industry regulator the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). However, owing to the sudden demand for Covid tests, the Department of Health and Social Care drew up new rules to allow private clinics to operate without accreditation.
Under the new rules, companies could ‘self-declare’ that they meet UKAS requirements. These include the company having a medical director or healthcare scientist, as well as ‘trained and competent staff’.
Ordinarily, if a company provides medical tests, then they must pass an inspection by industry regulator the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). However, owing to the sudden demand for Covid tests, the Department of Health and Social Care drew up new rules to allow private clinics to operate without accreditation
There have been anecdotal reports of test kits and results arriving late, and, shockingly, even people being sent emails confirming a ‘negative’ result before they had sent back their swab.
Last Monday, a number of private test clinics received a stern email from the Department of Health and Social Care warning: ‘It has come to our attention that there has been an increasing number of privately provided test kit samples being incorrectly labelled for return to the laboratory, or not labelled at all. This is… negatively affecting processing times and sometimes resulting in an inability to process samples altogether, leading to a poor customer experience and public health risk.’ The worrying message continued: ‘We are writing to remind you of the need to ensure a full end-to-end service is in place that meets the minimum standards.’
From June 30, UKAS intends to begin carrying out inspections. If companies have not met the requirements, they could be removed from the Government’s list.
There are four major labs that process PCR tests: Randox, Oncologica, Nationwide Pathology and Nonacus. Although some smaller private companies listed on gov.uk have their own labs, many are little more than a forwarding service, handling swabs, sending them on to one of these major labs, and then ultimately forwarding the results to the customer.
Consumers buying directly from a major lab will pay from £48 for a single PCR test, but small clinics, who make bulk orders, will pay less than half this amount – meaning they are charging huge mark-ups.
An extreme example of this can be found at the Mayfair GP Clinic, the most expensive provider on the Government approved list.
A day two PCR test alone costs £399 – a test that Randox charges customers £48 for. Its amber-list home test package – a Day Two and Day Eight test – costs £575. Add two Fit To Fly tests, and an additional test-to-release PCR at £119 per test, and testing could set you back a whopping £932 per person.
The Mayfair GP Clinic does send one of its doctors to the customer’s home to take the swabs, but these are then sent to the Oncologica lab in Cambridge, which charges just £215 for the same tests. A representative for The Mayfair GP Clinic said its ‘bespoke’ service ‘justifies the price’, and that if the test is positive, it will offer ‘medical support’ at no extra charge.
An inconclusive test means you pay again
For tests taken pre-departure, time can be of the essence. The majority of private PCR test providers guarantee results within 48 hours, however this is dependent on how quickly the test is transported.
If results are delayed, customers may be forced to miss their flight. Several test providers who send swabs to external labs told this newspaper they were ‘at the mercy’ of the Royal Mail. One said: ‘Tracked 24 is just a brand name. It rarely ever gets there within 24 hours.’
Read the company’s refund policy carefully before purchasing a test from a private firm. Many do not offer refunds if the test results are delayed. Some do, with caveats: C19 Testing told us it would give a full refund for a late result – as long the home test arrives at the lab at the right time. And again, this will be down to Royal Mail (using a courier service is another possibility, but it would crank up the cost again).
Macheras said: ‘The best most of these companies can offer you is a commitment to getting you your test on time, but there is rarely a money-back guarantee.’ He added: ‘What many providers won’t tell you is that, in some cases, the test can come back inconclusive, meaning it is neither positive or negative and has to be redone. If this happens, then the customer will have to pay for a brand new test.’
There is no legal obligation for travel companies to offer refunds or flexible booking for flights missed due to not having a test result.
BA allows customers to change or cancel a flight (a voucher is given to be used at a later date) at no extra charge. This can be done at any time before check-in for the flight closes. Customers just have to pay for any difference in ticket price. Jet2 also offers this ‘if a test provider fails to provide a result in time’.
The budget airlines, including Ryanair and easyJet, do not. Travel experts advise booking directly with airlines, rather than via an agent, as this usually offers the best consumer protection.
Some companies claim they use smaller labs, rather than the ‘big four’. They say this means they can get PCR results in a matter of hours, because the labs are handling fewer tests. However, insiders say these facilities are most likely to be overwhelmed by high demand.
‘A lot of these smaller labs that sprung up in the past six months made bold statements about how many tests they could take on, and then failed repeatedly to meet their orders,’ said one clinic owner.
It’s also important you don’t take pre-flight tests too soon – most countries will only accept tests taken no more than 72 hours before you arrive.
Could the vaccinated be spared the tests?
Last week, it was reported that the Government was exploring plans to scrap Covid travel tests for vaccinated Britons.
The proposal would also allow travellers who’d had two jabs to visit amber-list countries without having to quarantine.
Fully vaccinated Britons would be able to use their vaccine certificate, found on the NHS app, as proof of their status.
The scheme would mirror the EU’s ‘digital Covid certificate’, due to be introduced on July 1, which will allow vaccinated people or those with a negative test to travel freely in the bloc. Reports suggest the plans could come into effect as soon as the next Government review of the traffic- light system, due on June 28. On Thursday, Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman said the Government was ‘thinking about all aspects of this’ and added it was a ‘very dynamic evolving situation.’
Leading scientists have urged the government to free fully vaccinated people from undergoing multiple Covid-19 tests
Leading scientists have already backed the plan – and suggest that the Government could also free the vaccinated from having to have multiple tests.
Professor Jackie Cassell, public health expert at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said: ‘The vaccines not only make you less likely to get sick, they also make you far less likely to spread the virus.
‘As more people get both their jabs, the cost and burden of testing and quarantine will just become ridiculous, considering the reduced risk of infection.
‘This isn’t just about holidays. There are many people in this country with family who live abroad. It’s not right that you can only visit your mum in Jamaica if you’ve got enough money for testing.’
Macheras said the proposal was ‘the news the whole travel industry has been waiting for’.
He said: ‘The UK is an outlier on quarantine. So many countries around the world, from the US, to Spain, and South Korea, have exempted the fully vaccinated from quarantine.
‘These countries recognise the benefits of vaccinations, Britain needs to do the same.’
What you need to do on your way home
Countries set their own entry requirements – which may be a PCR test before travel, or one might be offered on arrival. The rules for Britons returning to the UK are more complex.
Travel destinations are split into three categories: green, amber and red. Anyone wishing to travel abroad must check the Government website to find the up-to-date lists. Each category has its own set of rules that travellers must adhere to. Children under four are not required to be tested.
GREEN – either a rapid lateral flow or PCR test – must be taken three days before returning to the UK. Travellers may be required to produce the results at the border. There is no need to quarantine when back home, however a PCR test must be taken either on or before day two of arriving back in the UK. Those testing positive for Covid will be required to self-isolate, as per the usual rules.
AMBER – either a rapid lateral flow test or PCR test – must be taken three days before returning to the UK. Arrivals are then required to quarantine for ten days and take further PCR tests on day two and day eight.
The day-two test has to be a specific kind of PCR test: one that can be genetically sequenced so that should Covid be detected the labs can check which variant it is. The day-eight PCR test can be the standard type.
There is also an option to ‘test and release’ from quarantine, by taking a test on day five, but the day-eight test still must be done regardless.
RED – Arrivals in the UK need to have proof of a negative Covid test in the three days before travel, and are required to stay for ten days in a managed quarantine hotel. While there, mandatory PCR testing is carried out by an official Government provider on days two and eight.