For those heading abroad this summer, there are certainly a few hurdles to overcome before you reach the beach. Whether it’s your holiday destination being struck from the quarantine-free list, cancelled flights, or turning up to find a closed hotel, there’s no doubt that booking a trip overseas carries a risk.
An increasing number of countries, including Cyprus and Barbados, are also demanding arrivals present evidence of a recent negative coronavirus test, leaving holidaymakers scrambling to get a test and certificate declaring them Covid-free.
Currently, free NHS tests (either at home or a testing site) are only available to those with symptoms of the virus and the people they live with, as well as patients heading into hospital for surgery or residents of virus hotspots.
So, if you feel well but need to prove you are Covid-free, then the best course of action is booking a private test. However, with so many companies selling online PCR tests, choosing a reliable and reasonably priced one can be a mine-field. Here, we break down how they work and what to look out for when ordering one.
How do they work?
There are two options: Ordering a home test kit or booking an appointment at a clinic. Most home kits will arrive within 24 hours and should be sent back the same day. They will then be analysed in a lab and you should receive your results within 48 hours – various companies have different guarantees.
If your test is negative, you should then be sent a certificate declaring you Covid-free. However, concerns have been raised that, as there is no standardised certificate, they could be forged.
Furthermore, it is not always clear how much information is required in each country. As the free NHS test results are just a text message and short email, there is no guarantee that border officials would deem this acceptable. Some companies, such as C19 Testing (C19testing.co.uk), ease fears with a watermarked example of its certificates online, which include the name, address and telephone number of both the laboratory and company, plus the passport number and date of birth of the recipient. Crucially, the date the sample was taken and processed is also recorded. When ordering a kit, it is certainly worth clarifying what will be detailed on your certificate.
Tests at clinics tend to have a quicker turnaround. The Private Harley Street Clinic in London, which offers tests for £250, promises results within 24 hours and will issue a ‘fit-to-fly certificate’ at no extra charge.
How much do they cost?
This is where things get a little murky – a quick Google search reveals tests on sale for an eye-watering £500. There is no doubt that analysing tests and returning results in an extremely short window is not a cheap endeavour, but the disparity in pricing is stark. As a guide, there seems to be a pricing consensus of around £150 for tests that return results within 48 hours, with steep rises for shorter time frames.
Nick Burnett and Dr Alasdair Scott from C19 Testing, which charges a relatively reasonable £119 for an at-home test, say that some are engaging in “exploitative pricing”.
They say: “We are operating on thin margins, but as a collective of healthcare professionals, we are not looking to profiteer.” Dr Scott adds: “I wouldn’t be involved if the company wasn’t honest, transparent and evidence-based”.
When choosing a test to order then, it’s certainly a good idea to look at whether doctors are involved and ensuring that the company uses accredited UK lab analysis.
What happens if your results don’t arrive in time?
With some countries, such as Cyprus, requiring a certificate issued no longer than 72 hours before arriving, time is of the essence.
C19 Testing guarantees that you’ll receive your result certificate within 48 hours of receiving your swab in their laboratory, though it may well be sooner. Their lab “processes samples 24/7”, so it makes no difference when you order and return your test. For reassurance they say: “If we don’t deliver on our guarantee, you’ll receive a full, quibble-free refund.”
For late-planners, a few companies offer same-day results. The London General Practice offers test dispatch 24 hours a day, seven days a week and promises results the same day – if swabs are returned by 7am. The service also includes a follow-up video consultation with a doctor though it is not cheap at £315.
If Covid-free certificates are adopted by more countries, timing could become a real issue. Travel specialist Dr Richard Dawood points to destinations with “a very long or complex routing”, which may be rendered off-limits to British travellers.
How accurate are the tests?
There is some debate about the accuracy of home tests versus those performed at a clinic, as people could self-administer the test incorrectly. However, as the Government itself sends out a huge number of home tests every day, one would hope there is faith in the accuracy.
Dr Richard Dawood says that test accuracy is “very good” and suggests that potential problems with the certificate system lie elsewhere, with timings and a potential shortage of tests.
However, with any coronavirus test there is also the possibility that your sample might prove inconclusive. Private Harley Street Clinic say: “Sample failure is rare, but if this happens, the sample needs to be repeated which takes another 24 hours. If the second repeat fails again, a brand-new collection is required.”
It remains unclear how quickly after exposure to the virus you might test positive. The NHS says the optimal time to get a test is within the first five days of symptoms, with less clarity on the pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. It is not unthinkable, therefore, that you have your in-date coronavirus certificate, but then start showing symptoms on the way to the airport.