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Since lockdown has eased, more and more of us are going on – or planning – a holiday. Having been locked down for so long and with lots of great package deals to be had, the allure of travelling abroad is strong.
However, the price of the Covid-19 testing required for foreign travel, both before you leave and when you return from your destination, can really rack up.
Over 80 private travel companies have been warned by the government about the prices they are charging for tests. Some of these travel firms are listing prices on the government’s official website that are lower than those being offered on their own websites at the point of checkout.
The health secretary Sajid Javid has said 82 businesses have been sent a first warning as part of a two-strike system, while another 57 were in the process of being removed from gov.uk’s “find a travel test provider” page.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said if travel companies refuse to take action within three days of their first strike they will be removed from the list as part of the new two-strike policy.
This follow a DHSC review of pricing and service standards of day-two and day-eight testing providers that have been recommended by the government.
The investigation found that 82 companies – 18% of all day two and day eight testing providers listed – advertised much lower prices on gov.uk than those offered when users clicked through to the brand’s official website.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for any private testing company to be taking advantage of holidaymakers and today’s action clamps down on this cowboy behaviour,” Javid said.
So, what test do you need before travel abroad?
Before travelling, you must take a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test if your destination country requires one – some don’t if you’re double vaccinated. You can search for your destination’s requirements on the UK government website.
Unlike lateral flow tests, which can a result in 30 minutes without the use of a lab, PCR swab tests are sent to a lab for analysis. Most people get their result the next day, but it can take up to three days. PCR tests have a higher level of accuracy than rapid tests, which is why they’re being used for travel.
The government encourages you to do your own research before buying a PCR test as suppliers vary around the country. Some high street pharmacies offer testing, and you can also search the supplier list on the gov.uk website.
The rules around testing pre-departure will depend on your vaccination status and destination. Before you travel abroad, check the entry rules for the country you intend to visit, including the timing and proof needed of a negative result.
Remember to book your tests before you travel and leave enough time for them to be delivered to your address in England.
What’s a reasonable price to pay for a PCR test?
Sean Kipton from the Travel Association tells HuffPost UK the costs of PCR tests are roughly twice the price you would expect to pay on the continent.
“They are proving to be a barrier to some people travelling. For example, if you’ve got a family of four children over four years old, they’re all going to have PCR tests. That can substantially add to the cost of a holiday,” Kipton says.
The UK government has been saying it will look at the costs of PCR tests for months but has done very little, he adds “In France, you get them for free on their version of the NHS, I don’t think that has to be the case here but we should look at how we can make them more affordable.”
The price of PCR tests vary but a standard price to pay is around £80 – a PCR test from Boots for example is £85, Kipton points out. “I don’t think we can put a figure on what a reasonable price looks like,” he adds, but says the UK should be taking our cue from other European countries on fairer pricing.
What tests do you need on arrival in England?
The rules around tests for your return to the UK will depend on where you have been in the 10 days before and whether it’s on the red, amber or green list.
The test you take before your come home must meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml.
These could include:
a LAMP test
an antigen test, such as a lateral flow test
Currently, you must take a Covid-19 test in the three days before you travel back to England and book a quarantine hotel package for your return, which will include two further Covid tests to be taken on day two and eight after your return.
You must take a Covid test in the three days before you travel to England and book and pay for the Covid tests you will need to take after arriving back, whether or not you are fully vaccinated.
If you are double jabbed, you must take a test on or before day two. If you are not, you will need to quarantine at home or in the place you are staying for 10 days, taking a Covid test on or before day two and on or after day eight.
You may be able to end any quarantine early if you pay for a private Covid test through the Test to Release scheme.
You must take a Covid test in the three days before you travel to England and book and pay for the Covid tests you will need to take after arriving back.
After you arrive in England, you must take a Covid test on or before day two, and you do not need to quarantine unless the test result is positive.
How can you protect yourself against high prices or scams for PCR tests?
Be careful to follow links to testers from the official gov.uk supplier list, rather than other private websites posing as such, and also check the price of the test at checkout doesn’t differ vastly from the price listed on the government site.
Sean Kipton recommends taking recommendations from an accredited travel provider. “Try tour operators and airlines,” he advises. “They’ve done deals with companies and obviously, they’re going to make sure they’re reputable.”
Any trusted clinic will ask for the date of your flight abroad (and home again) before letting you book a test.
Note down the day of your departure and work backwards to check that you will be able to take and send off your PCR test, and get your results back in time. Most people receive results the next day but it may take three days in some cases. Be sure to allow for weekends too, when results may not be returned.
Travel is the story of our summer. The rules (and traffic lights) are always changing, but one thing’s clear, we dream of being Anywhere But Here. This seasonal series offers you clear-headed travel advice, ideas-packed staycation guides, clever swaps and hacks, and a healthy dose of wanderlust.
This article was amended on Wednesday August 25 to clarify the rules around tests on arrival to the UK.