Why scrapping expensive PCR tests would be great news for UK travellers

Sep 13, 2021

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The U.K. government’s strict requirement for anyone entering, or returning to, the United Kingdom to purchase expensive privately administered COVID-19 tests has been criticised all summer but there could be good news announced very soon.

Our vaccination programme is now successfully entering its final stages with more than 80% of the population 16 and older now fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

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Yet, even if you’re a fully vaccinated traveller returning from a green-list country with cases much lower than the U.K.’s, all travellers have been required by law to take a pre-departure antigen/lateral test prior to boarding a flight to the U.K. as well as a more expensive PCR test on or before day two.

Unvaccinated adults returning from amber countries must also take another PCR test on the eighth day and can end their 10-day quarantine early by paying for yet another PCR test on the fifth day as part of the Test To Release scheme.

So, what happens to all these test results?

Well, the traveller does get peace of mind by knowing the test result. And reliable PCR tests can help track new variants, such as delta and mu, though hardly any of the privately purchased PCR test results are communicated to the government for this purpose.

This has meant a lot of covid tests have been taken this summer solely for the purposes of travel. Travel analyst Paul Charles estimates more than £1 billion has been spent on private PCR tests for travel. This money does not go to the NHS, nor to the U.K. government to help with the containment of COVID-19 — it goes straight to private testing providers.

While anyone in the U.K. can obtain 10 packs of free NHS lateral flow tests from any pharmacy or hospital and is encouraged to take a test twice a week, these free tests cannot be used for travel purposes. I have seen travellers in Greece denied check-in when they tried to use a free NHS COVID-19 test result to board a flight to the U.K.

Related: Returning to England from an amber list country — Top tips and what you can expect

Photo by d3sign / Gettys

You must purchase all tests required to return to the United Kingdom through an approved government provider. While the price of tests has dropped considerably in the last 12 months, a family of four returning from a green country can still expect to pay at least £300 for the tests required to enter the country, even if they are all fully vaccinated.

No matter how many £5 or £10 flights you see advertised, this test requirement has made travel much more expensive.

This extra cost and hassle of all the testing is a significant barrier for the recovery of the travel industry, which has been decimated by the pandemic.

Rumours are circulating that the U.K. government is currently planning a major change to the private testing requirement from early October, which could be formally announced as soon as this week. The pre-departure lateral flow/antigen flow tests from green and amber destinations could be removed entirely, and the day two PCR test could be changed to an antigen/lateral flow test requirement. It’s still unclear if this day two test would need to be privately paid for, or if a free NHS test could be used.

Privately paid lateral/antigen flow tests are cheaper than PCR tests, but not hugely so. If an NHS test could be used, that family holiday suddenly becomes at least £300 less expensive.

While the scrapping of the traffic light system won’t affect most British travellers, removing all of these costly private tests would be a huge boost to the travel industry and is likely to encourage more Brits to travel abroad, knowing their return to the country will have less cost and stress than it currently does.

Related: 5 things travellers need to know about the mu COVID-19 variant

Bottom line

Scrapping private tests to return to the United Kingdom won’t instantly solve every problem facing the travel industry. There remains the frustration that each country you are travelling to has slightly different entry rules, and these rules change regularly; travel is simply much more complicated than it was before the pandemic.

However, the cost, inconvenience and frustration of these private tests have been a major barrier to Brits travelling this summer and a move to using free, convenient NHS COVID-19 tests would be a big step in the right direction for increased international travel.

Featured image by Jackyenjoyphotography / Getty Images.

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