SIMON LAMBERT: A shake-up of the travel rules should stop holidaymakers paying hundreds of pounds to play Covid test roulette

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Going on holiday in summer last year involved quarantine roulette, as countries were dramatically added or removed from the naughty list for Britons returning home.

As if that wasn’t fun enough, summer 2021 saw the addition of a new level to the game: Covid test roulette, which it seems hopefully the government is on the verge of simplifying today.

If the shake-up does arrive it would be wise to focus on what we want from testing, because the system whereby people need to get tested but can’t use the abundance of free NHS testing we have in the UK seems bizarre.

Sadly, any move will be too late for the families who paid hundreds of pounds for tests to go on holiday over the summer, but it wasn’t just the financial cost that was the problem, it was working out what you needed and who you could trust.

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The game went like this: Could you navigate your way through the maze of testing requirements for different countries on return to the UK, get the right ones before you go, work out if your kids need them, and pick a provider that will actually get you your certificates when you need them?

Did you need a PCR or lateral flow to get out of the country, could you pick the right test, get the result in time, avoid getting ripped off, get the right test to come back, and did you then need a Day 2 and a Day 8 PCR, and a Day 5 Test to Release one?

These all fun questions you could frantically ask yourself, as you pored over endless Gov.uk and foreign country web pages, sifted through the test providers, and mentally totted up how much this is going to cost, while wondering where you’ll slip up

This came in addition to quarantine roulette, which this year arrived with colour coded levels – for extra entertainment these may change or a whole new one could be invented – and the ultimate booby prize of ten nights in a quarantine hotel.

That it actually got harder this year to escape Britain’s dismal summer for some European sunshine is somewhat depressing, considering that this time last year vaccines hadn’t even been invented, whereas now almost 80 per cent of the adult population have had both their coronavirus jabs.

But, I suppose in a way it’s understandable. This time last year many thought we were out of the woods and we weren’t, we know more now about variants, and the memory of the brutal second wave and harsh January lockdown is fresh in people’s minds.

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What’s galling is that once again the Government delivered a slice of confusing public policy and then stepped back for private enterprise to wander in and rinse people. 

We are repeatedly told that Britain has some of the best Covid testing capacity in the world. And that seems true: unlike the early days of the pandemic, it’s very easy to get coronavirus tested nowadays.

Lots of us have boxes of free lateral flow tests the Government gives out and it’s easy to get a PCR test. 

A lateral flow test result is almost instant and the NHS will typically get your PCR test result back in a day or so.

Yet, despite this surfeit of testing capability, you aren’t allowed to use NHS tests to travel.

If you rock up at the airport in the UK with an NHS text or test result on your app, the airline has been told not to let you fly, and when you come back into the country you need to have booked at least a Day 2 PCR test with a private provider in advance.

Into the breach has stepped a host of private companies: some providing a very good service and some not; some charging fairly and some charging what seem to be highly inflated prices.

And it’s up to you to not only fork out a small fortune on tests – hoping you’ve read the rules right – but to work out which of these providers to trust.

Amber list tests and travel: what’s involved?

Portugal is on the amber list, for which the UK’s return requirements are the same for each country.

However, individual countries may have different requirements for Britons to fly out there.

In our case it was a lateral flow test no more than 48 hours before arriving in Portugal.

On return we required a lateral flow test no more than 72 hours before landing back in the UK and then a Day 2 PCR.

So, how did it all work? We booked the tests on Qured’s website, where there was a menu of Fit to Fly, Return to Fly, and different day PCR tests. 

The lateral flow tests to fly out to Portugal and back to the UK for my wife required us to book a video appointment, where we were connected with one of the company’s representatives who watched us do the test and then got us to write the time, date and a reference number on the test cassette. 

Then 15 minutes later we had to send a photo of it next to our passports. 

We breathed a sigh of relief as our tests came back negative and then another one when a couple of hours later we got fit to fly certificates issued confirming this. 

Overall, it was a relatively simple and good service. 

One Day 2 of being home our PCR tests arrived and all four of us did one. They were sent back on a Friday and on Tuesday afternoon two of us had results but the other two didn’t get them until Wednesday.

You aren’t required to isolate while waiting for the PCR results. (And I had a lateral flow test at work the day after I got back anyway.)

To fly we also needed proof of our double vaccination status and to fill in passenger locator forms online for both Portugal and the UK.

The UK one needed a reference number proof that we had Day 2 PCR tests booked. 

Documents were checked by easyJet’s check in staff – we checked in a suitcase, so it was done at the desk – and at Portuguese passport control.

We flew from Luton to Faro and back and considering we checked in a bag and our children’s ages mean we can’t use epassport gates, the queues, waiting and hassle were not noticeably worse than usual – but we did fly out on a Sunday and back on a Wednesday. 

There’s been some horror stories of queues and red tape over the summer holidays. We got lucky and avoided thet, but I would imagine now for travel outside the school holidays, hassle should hopefully be at a minimum.

As a personal example, I decided to brave escaping the country for a family holiday in Portugal.

Both my wife and I are double jabbed, so didn’t need to quarantine for five days when we reached Portugal and our two children are young enough not to as well (this quarantine rule has been lifted since we went).

However, we did need a PCR or lateral flow test before we went, within 72 or 48 hours, respectively. We wouldn’t need this if we had an EU digital Covid vaccination certificate, but for some reason the UK and EU can’t work out a reciprocal arrangement between our app and theirs.

Because Portugal is on the amber list, both adults (but not the kids who are under ten) then needed to do a PCR or lateral flow test no more than 72 hours before flying back to the UK.

We didn’t have to quarantine or do a Day 8 or Day 5 Test to Release Test because we are double jabbed, but all four of us do had to do a Day 2 PCR test, which must be booked before arrival back in the UK. 

Yet, while waiting for this and its result we could wander about freely.

Even with us having covered the travel situation and to-ing and fro-ing extensively on This is Money, working out what we needed to do was a real headache.

The next step was finding a provider that doesn’t charge too much, but also seems to provide a quality service. This, after all, is not the place for false economies.

My research led me to a firm called Qured: it does the pre-departure lateral flow tests we need in the UK and Portugal with video verification appointments for £39 each and Day 2 PCR tests for £69 each. 

Those costs are at the reasonable end of the market but not the absolute cheapest. However, cheapest isn’t always best. 

To find out more, I spoke to Qured’s boss Alex Templeton, who explained that the cost comes from the service it is providing: ranging from couriering out tests to get to people on time, to the online appointments, customer service, a commitment to help if anything goes wrong, and the lab cost that PCR tests involve. 

All that sounds imminently reasonable, what is annoying for many people is that the government has created a situation where people are having to pay all this when free testing is abundant in the UK.

I’ve had to do covid testing for two other things this summer: going to matches at Euro 2020 and to a festival called Standon Calling. 

For both you could use the free NHS tests. The former was a bit of an honesty box system, you did a lateral flow test and registered if you were negative or positive on the NHS app, the latter involved a free test but recorded live on video and a photo of the result submitted – it cost £4 each.

Perhaps if want to go on holiday then there is an argument that you should have to pay for a test, but that is dramatically undermined by the scenes we have seen this summer with some private testing letting people down and the wide range of charging. 

Because if it’s a good idea to test people for public health reasons, then surely you should take advantage of your supposedly world-class testing capabilities rather than shove them into a pricey and confusing private system.

Unless, of course, the real aim of the game was to use a dash of heavy duty nudge theory to shove people away from going on holiday. 

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