What kind of Covid test do I need to travel, how much does it cost and how do I get one?

Simon Calder
·11-min read
Test series: an NHS lateral flow test (Simon Calder)
Test series: an NHS lateral flow test (Simon Calder)

All non-essential international travel from the UK is currently illegal, but all the indications are that, from 17 May, the ban on going abroad will be lifted. And when it does, the traveller is likely to face repeated demands for evidence of negative tests for Covid-19.

These are the key questions and answers.

What’s the background?

Many countries now demand negative Covid-19 test results from incoming travellers.

Each destination country sets its own rules. Israel, for example, will initially allow in only people who have been vaccinated, and even then requires a negative PCR test result before you board a plane to Tel Aviv or Eilat. Unless there is international agreement on Covid jab certificates, you’ll also need a blood test on arrival.

And when international travel to and from the UK opens up, on return there will be a need to test both pre-departure and post-arrival. While a wide range of tests are acceptable for the pre-departure test, only one type is recognised for post-arrival testing.

What tests are there?

Covid tests look either for the presence of the virus in the body right now – or evidence of a previous response to it by your immune system.

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Those that look for current infection are broadly known as diagnostic tests. They can be molecular, such as PCR tests, which look for the virus’s genetic material; or antigen tests that detect specific proteins from the virus, usually the so-called “spike” protein.

Molecular tests are certainly preferred; the World Health Organisation says negative antigen diagnostic test results “should not remove a contact from quarantine requirements”.

An antibody or serology test looks for antibodies created by your immune system in response to a virus. They can take several days or weeks to develop after you have an infection, and stay in your blood after you recovery. It is believed that the presence of antibodies can provide some immunity to Covid-19 in future.

How are tests rated?

Tests are never 100 per cent accurate, and vary in their “sensitivity” and “specificity”. Sensitivity means the proportion of carriers of the virus who are correctly identified; specificity refers to the proportion of non-carriers who are correctly identified.

So 100 per cent sensitivity would mean no false negatives, while 100 per cent specificity means no false positives.

Which is the best?

The most popular among governments stipulating a particular test for travellers is the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) version. This is also the standard NHS test and has been described as the “gold standard”. It is also the only one accepted for post-arrival testing in the UK.

A swab is used for the back of the throat and/or the top of the nostrils. The sample is then processed to try to detect genetic material in the virus called RNA, which is evidence of the presence of Covid-19.

In a specialist laboratory, a solution known as a reagent is added to the sample. The resulting substance is then cooked: subjected to a series of alternating temperature steps using a “thermal cycler”, to create billions of copies of the RNA. This makes them detectable.

The analysis typically takes 12 hours. Since samples must be transported to the lab and are typically processed in bulk, getting a result can take much longer.

Are swab tests uncomfortable?

They are. Many people find the swab procedure unpleasant: a throat swab can make you want to gag, while a nasal swab feels intrusive and even threatening. But health professionals are trained to target material that may contain RNA.

Self-testing kits are available – but there is concern that untrained individuals or their partners may not properly carry out the test. Some providers will arrange for a medical professional to talk you through the test on a video call.

What about lateral flow tests?

These antigen tests, using lateral flow devices (LFDs) are at the heart of the British government’s “moonshot” plan for widespread mass testing. These rapid antigen tests are cheap and quick, and do not require any “cooking”.

They generally require swabs and the discomfort that goes with them.

Simon Calder
Simon Calder

“Getting into the habit of regular testing as part of our everyday lives will play an important role as restrictions are cautiously lifted and we begin to get back to more normal ways of life,” says the government.

It is expanding from school and workplace testing to offer them free to everyone for twice-weekly testing.

The government says: “We know that between one in four and one in three people who have Covid-19 never show any symptoms but that does not mean they are not infectious.

“Using LFDs enables us to rapidly identify people in the population who are asymptomatic, with results produced in 30 minutes.

“We also know that lateral flow devices are effective at finding people with high viral loads who are most infectious and most likely to transmit the virus to others.

“We’ve also looked very carefully at the evidence that’s emerging from LFD tests that have been delivered at home and in testing sites over recent weeks, and real life scenarios suggests they are 99.9 per cent accurate which means that the risk of false positives is extremely low – about one in 1,000 – which is a very good test.”

Despite its enthusiasm for lateral flow tests in the UK, the government does not regard them as sufficiently accurate to be used by travellers after arriving from abroad.

Is ‘lateral flow’ the same as ‘rapid antigen’?

All lateral flow tests are rapid antigen tests. Indeed, the UK government calls the system ”rapid lateral flow antigen testing”.

Any more?

Lamp” (loop-mediated isothermal amplification) diagnostic tests are molecular. They use similar swabs, or simply (and more comfortably) a saliva sample, and do not require that expensive and time-devouring thermal cycler.

They can be processed on site – for example at Heathrow airport, where Collinson offers the technique for its testing centres in Terminals 2 and 5.

In a wide-scale experiment carried out at NHS trusts and universities, Lamp tests had a sensitivity of 79 per cent and a specificity of 100 per cent – when compared with the PCR results for the same people. In other words, there were no false positives (which is good news for uninfected people) but one in five false negatives (bad news for countries wishing to keep out carriers of the virus), relative to the PCR result.

But the government reported: “In samples with a higher viral load, the sensitivity of the test increased to 94 per cent for saliva and 100 per cent for swabs.”

There are also Transcription-Mediated Amplification (TMA) tests, another molecular variant, similar to the Lamp test. It is molecular, and still needs the sample to be heat-treated to replicate any RNA but is swifter, simpler and cheaper. They have been accepted by countries such as Spain, but are not generally available in the UK.

So what do I need to travel out from the UK?

A certificate issued by an officially recognised testing centre confirming you have tested negative for coronavirus. What test it must be all depends on the country you are visiting – as well as your nationality and/or departure point.

The standard is a PCR test conducted within 72 hours of arrival at your destination.

That can prove a challenge if you have a long flight and/or you are planning to travel during or immediately after a weekend/public holiday.

Other nations have their own time limits. Some insist on 48 hours while others allow four, five or even seven days before departure.

But the European Commission has published a list of acceptable rapid antigen tests that includes lateral flow tests.

These are cheaper and faster and can increasingly be taken at the airport before departure. It may well be that they become the common standard for EU countries.

Note that countries usually specify the language and the format of the certificate. Only English, French and Spanish are acceptable for travellers heading for the UK, but the test can take the form of a printed document or an email or text message on a mobile phone.

Do need to self-isolate between taking the test and departure?

No, though of course the less you venture out the lower the chance you will be infected.

I’ve had both jabs. Will that help me?

It certainly will for some destination countries: increasingly, acceptable proof that you have completed a course of vaccination will allow you to avoid some or all testing requirements. And some nations will, initially at least, allow only vaccinated visitors to enter.

Returning to the UK, vaccination status makes no difference – it will not affect your obligation to take and pay for tests.

What about arriving back in the UK?

For anyone travelling from abroad to the UK, a test before departure is required; it can be more or less any variety (including lateral flow and Lamp), so long as it meets the government’s specification. Prices are likely to be around £20-£30.

After arrival, PCR tests are mandatory from all travellers from abroad. They must be pre-booked from a suppliers on an official UK government website (not yet provided). Following an intensification of competition, the price has fallen by around half to typically £60-£80 – though to get the lowest prices you may need to follow a link from your airline.

The government says: “You must provide the original test result notification.”

It must include the following:

  • your name, which should match the name on your travel documents

  • your date of birth or age

  • the result of the test

  • the date the test sample was collected or received by the test provider

  • the name of the test provider and their contact details

  • confirmation of the device used for the test, or that the test was a PCR test

“If the test result does not include this information you may not be able to board, and may not be able to travel to England. If you arrive without a test result that includes this information, you might have to pay a £500 fine,” the government says.

Can I get a free test through the NHS?

No. Tests provided free for the public who are concerned that they may be infected or are testing routinely must not be used for the purposes of travel.

Conversely, if you fear you may have contracted coronavirus, you should seek an NHS test rather than one that is offered to travellers – who are presumed to be negative.

So how do I find one?

If family or friends can recommend a contact, then go for that.

Two of the biggest providers are Randox, which offers at-home self-administered PCR tests, and Cignpost ExpressTest, which offers on-site PCR tests for £60 at Gatwick, and £80 at Heathrow and Edinburgh airports.

You could ask a long-established travel health provider, such as the Fleet Street Clinic in central London, Nomad (with locations in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Manchester) and Masta (which has a presence in dozens of pharmacies).

An established, doctor-led practice is likely to be both more professional and more expensive than a new venture that is leading on price. They use the highest grade of medical test available with the best possible accuracy ratings.

Will I need a test on arrival?

Quite possibly. Many countries stipulate one or more tests on arrival, usually at the traveller’s expense.

Returning to the UK currently requires a test before departure and two more on arrival, on days two and eight.

From 17 May, when the “traffic light” system of risk assessment will begin, people coming to the UK even from low-risk “green” countries will require testing post-arrival – and only an expensive PCR will do.

There are concerns among travel industry bosses that high prices could mean that only richer people can afford to travel.

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnerships, said: “Aligning travel to ‘green’ countries under the government’s proposed traffic light system will require affordable, easily accessible testing.”

John Holland-Kaye of Heathrow airport said: “The main concern is the cost of all of this – both the pre-departure test and the post-arrival test which, as I understand it, needs to be a PCR test.

“This could become prohibitively expensive for a lot of people who just want to be able to go about their normal business.

“We need to make sure that this doesn’t just become something that only wealthy people can afford to do, that it’s much more democratic and accessible than that.”

Prices for tests are likely to come down. UK prices are high by global standards: in Mumbai, for example, the highest price for a PCR test is 600 rupees (£6) – with some airlines offering tests for half that.

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