When do PCR tests for travel switch to lateral flow?

·6-min read

The continuation of mandatory PCR Covid tests for travel has been a bone of contention for both travellers and the travel sector throughout 2021.

Despite the successful vaccine rollout, any trips - even countries on the non-red ROW list - still require multiple tests to be taken at present, regardless of a traveller’s vaccination status.

The government reduced the cost of mandatory Covid testing for travel in August following widespread criticism and complaints from consumers, the travel industry and even the UK Competition and Markets Authority, that tests were exceptionally costly.

By early October, the UK government confirmed that PCR tests for travel would be scrapped for the double jabbed, with holidaymakers being able to take an antigen (or lateral flow) Covid test around travel, saving up to £80 per test in the process.

What date are PCR tests for travel being scrapped?

Finally, on 14 October it was announced that cheaper antigen (or lateral flow) tests will be allowed for fully vaccinated travellers from 24 October onwards.

Giving an emoji thumbs up, transport secretary Grant Shapps tweeted: “Mandatory PCR tests will be gone in time for October half-term! For vaccinated adults and families seeking some winter sun abroad. From 24 Oct take a cheaper lateral flow test on return, to make travelling easier and simpler for everyone.”

Lateral flow tests will still need to be bought by travellers from official sources (a list of test providers is expected to go live on the UK.gov website by 22 October), rather than being able to use the free tests available from the NHS.

However, the tests are usually much cheaper than a PCR test, which usually range from around £50-100 in price. Lateral flow tests are expected to be available for more like £20 per test, saving families in particular hundreds of pounds per trip.

Tests ordered online (such as the “day two” test taken by vaccinated arrivals after landing in the UK) can be taken at home or in your accommodation, but you must upload a photo of your test to verify results as soon as possible.

Otherwise you can book at test on arrival, in one of the testing centres at the airport.

If you test positive on your lateral flow, you need to self-isolate and will be able to get a free confirmatory PCR test from the NHS to double check the result.

It is hoped that this will give the ailing travel industry a boost, where many members of the public have been put off travel by expensive and time-contingent testing requirements.

“Taking away expensive mandatory PCR testing will boost the travel industry and is a major step forward in normalising international travel and encouraging people to book holidays with confidence,” said Mr Shapps.

What has the travel industry said?

The change is long overdue - and some still think testing should be scrapped altogether for vaccinated travellers.

In response to the 24 October announcement, Director of Public Affairs at ABTA Luke Petherbridge said: “It is welcome that PCR tests will be replaced by lateral flows for fully vaccinated travellers from 24 October– in time for those returning from school half term holidays in England.

“Costly tests have been a huge barrier to people travelling so we hope this will help make overseas holidays much more accessible. Brits are desperate to catch up on their much loved and much missed foreign trips – with 46% of people looking to take a winter holiday. With the relaxed travel restrictions and majority of destinations open for travel, now is the best in a long time to book a overseas holiday.

“We also encourage the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to adopt the same approach.”

In recent months, Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye has called on the government to scrap all testing for double vaccinated travellers and the amber list.

The UK’s largest airport reported last month that passenger numbers remain 71 per cent down in August compared with the same month pre-pandemic with “every-changing restrictions, expensive and unnecessary testing requirements and lack of a common approach across borders continue to hinder the UK’s economic recovery.”

In a statement, it describes the current traffic light system as an “outlier” that is “delaying the government’s Global Britain ambitions” and “handing rivals a competitive advantage while the UK loses market share.”

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: 'The government has the tools to protect the UK's international competitiveness which will boost the economic recovery and achieve its 'global Britain' ambitions.

“If ministers fail to take this opportunity to streamline the travel rules then the UK will fall further behind as trade and tourists will increasingly bypass the UK.”

The CEO of Gatwick Airport echoed this call, describing existing travel restrictions “out of step”.

Stewart Wingate said: “With vaccination rates across Europe comparable, if not better than the UK's, the time has come for testing to be removed altogether for travellers who have been double jabbed.

“Our continued travel restrictions are out of step with much of Europe and continue to have a real impact on jobs and livelihoods, business and growth opportunities while also keeping friends and family apart.”

Where do I buy a lateral flow test for travel?

The government is expected to update its web page listing approved Covid test providers for travel by 22 October.

“Eligible travellers will be able to order cheaper lateral flow tests from private testing providers as an alternative to a PCR, offering faster results. The list of approved private providers will go live on GOV.UK on the 22nd October,” reads a statement from the Department for Transport.

The government addressed reports of a shortage of lateral flow tests in its statement, saying that it is “extending regulations to allow some tests supplied to the private testing market that are pending validation to remain on the market in the short term”.

“This is to address any potential shortage of supply while work continues at pace to ensure only high performing tests are ultimately approved to remain on the UK market. The government will continue to publish a list of private testing providers who meet the minimum standards for the public to choose from, with PCR test options available as well,” read the DfT statement.

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