What to do if shortages mean you can’t get a PCR test for travel?

As the nationwide shortage of NHS tests continues, travel testing providers have assured Telegraph Travel that – by contrast – there is “no issue” in supplying private tests at present. 

This will be welcome news for Britons with New Year travel plans, as both lateral flow and PCR tests remain essential under the current border rules, with both pre-arrival and Day 2 tests required to enter the UK. Rather than using NHS tests, travellers must buy private tests – and these remain in ready supply, say providers. 

But even so, testing for travel is not without its problems, such as postal issues and delayed results. If you are let down by a private testing company and are either unable to travel because your result hasn’t arrived in time, or stuck self-isolating at home waiting for the all-clear, what can you do in practice? Here’s everything that travellers need to know. 

Are travel tests affected by the national shortage?

While NHS tests are currently in short supply, private tests seemingly are not. Every week, around one million lateral flow tests are sold privately in the UK, mostly for travel purposes – but this is a “fraction” of the test kits that the Government requires, says Nick Burnett, director of private test provider C19 Testing. 

“The private supply of tests has no issue at present,” says Burnett. “If I were to hazard a guess, the government simply didn’t order enough [tests] in time and didn’t plan for the logistical challenges of distributing tests either to households and/or pharmacies. Everyone was blindsided by Omicron and even privately, there was a rush to source millions of kits from the Chinese manufacturers who are pumping out millions per day – but they fulfil orders from many other countries, not just the UK.”

Indeed, during the shortage of NHS kits, many non-travellers are turning to private providers to source Covid tests for work-related or personal use. “We’ve certainly seen an uptick during December,” says Burnett. “One issue with private tests is that the QR codes printed on them aren’t recognised by the NHS systems so you can’t register your result – although this shouldn’t stop people actually testing themselves. It just means the Government doesn’t have the data to plug into their models.”

Pre-departure PCR tests

While many destinations now only ask for proof of vaccination in order to enter quarantine-free, some destinations do still require a PCR test certificate on arrival, typically taken up to 72 hours before departure. If your PCR test result doesn’t turn up, however, you are in a tricky position. Your airline will almost certainly check to see this result, and will likely deny boarding if you fail to present it.

Even if you are not denied boarding, you will likely be refused admission on arrival at your destination, or possibly put into quarantine. It’s not a risk you would be wise to take. Unfortunately, neither situation will be covered by insurance, and test providers are not liable for any losses you may incur, the cost of alternative flights, or compensation.

Some clinics offer rapid return of PCR results and there is a growing number of quick-turnaround testing sites at airports, including a three-hour service at Heathrow. A full list of Government-approved testing providers can be found here.

Pre-departure tests to return home

All arrivals in the UK must take a lateral flow test before travelling home, regardless of their vaccination status. This must be done ‘in the two days before your service to England departs’, the government advises. 

These tests can either be taken in a clinic overseas, or done remotely using a UK provider. Free NHS tests, however, are not accepted.

In order to board your flight or vessel home, you will need to show evidence of your negative lateral flow, antigen or PCR test certificate. If, for whatever reason, your certificate does not come through, you could be in a difficult position and may be denied boarding.

If your certificate has not come through and you are due to fly home that day, your only option might be to seek out a local pharmacy and try to take a last-minute test.

Day 2 and Day 8 tests on arrival home

Regardless of their vaccination status, everyone must take a PCR test on or before day two after landing in the UK and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

Unvaccinated arrivals must take a PCR test on day two and will need to take another on day eight, and quarantine for 10 days.

It is essential that you have booked this test (or tests if unvaccinated) before you travel home, as you will need the booking code in order to complete your Passenger Locator Form. This is usually supplied instantly after purchase. 

If your test does not turn up on time, you should contact your test supplier and ask for a new one. If you complete the test and never receive a result, chase the supplier and ask for a new test. 

It would be wise to make all reasonable efforts to order immediate replacements for any tests that are late or do not confirm your result – and if you have to get those from a different provider, you should claim your original payment back from the company which let you down. 

Test to release

If you are not fully vaccinated and arrive back in the UK, you must quarantine for 10 days and take PCR tests on days two and eight. There is, however, the option to take a further PCR test on day five, known as ‘Test to Release’. A negative result from this means you may exit quarantine, although you will still need to take the test on day eight. Sadly, if your Test to Release result does not come back on time, you will need to remain in quarantine until it comes through.

How to minimise the risks:

  • Purchase a test through a provider which partners with the travel companies you book your holiday with. Then, if the test service lets you down, you can at least then argue that the airline or tour operator should not charge you for postponing your flight. BA, for example, offers discounts through some testing companies, as does Tui.
  • For guidance on getting a test before you return, see Foreign Office advice for your destination. The relevant advisory page will often have useful information.
  • Take the test as early as is allowed, giving yourself as much time as possible to get the result, or book another if you are let down. For returning to the UK you can have a test up to three days before travel.
  • Be very cautious when trying to obtain tests at weekends or on bank holidays, when delays to results are much more likely.

Reader Service: Do you know what medical conditions you need to declare when you buy travel insurance? Discover more about the Telegraph Media Group Travel Insurance Service. 

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