How Covid-19 virus tests fail travellers

Covid-19 tests for those wishing to travel are a hassle and cost far more than on the continent.

PCR testing at an airport in Mexico
Your holiday could prove cheaper than PCR tests
(Image credit: © Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

If Matt Hancock doesn’t stop you going on holiday this summer then the cost of Covid-19 tests just might. A negative PCR test (the type that must be sent to a laboratory for analysis) is required for entry into many countries and on return to the UK, but the costs can rack up quickly. Providers on the government’s official list for England and Northern Ireland offer tests costing between £42 and £399. The median price is £100.

A round trip to a green-list country is likely to include at least an outbound PCR test, a lateral-flow test (the ones that give a result on the spot in 30 minutes) before return and then a second PCR test on day two of return. Those quarantining after travel to amber countries need to shell out for two PCR tests on day two and day eight. Young children are exempt from some of the rules, but for large families the costs can still be eye-watering.

We pay VAT on top

For example, Karen Beddow of Cheshire “faced spending £1,200” on tests to travel to Portugal with her husband and three daughters at half-term, says David Churchill in the Daily Mail. After a day’s research she managed to find tests available for £665. Some people report paying more for tests than they did for the holiday itself. The UK still charges VAT on PCR tests, unlike many other European countries. The average cost of a PCR test in eight continental destinations is £62, half the UK average. Lateral-flow tests are free for asymptomatic people on the NHS. But they are not widely accepted for entry into other countries because they are less accurate than the PCR test, which the NHS only gives to people with symptoms.

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Some people are thought to have feigned symptoms to get free PCR tests that they then use for travel. As well as being fraudulent, the ruse doesn’t work: airlines have been refusing boarding to people without privately provided test results. NHS “test and trace” documents are not accepted for travel (even from NHS workers).

More competition is slowly bringing costs down, say Helen Coffey and Joanna Whitehead in The Independent. Boots has launched a PCR self-test package for £65. Airlines have started to subsidise the cost of tests so that their passengers can fly.

Tui sells PCR test packages starting from just £20. Ryanair, easyJet and British Airways have also begun to offer discounted PCR test deals for £60 and less. Airports are joining in: Heathrow sells pre-departure “PCR fit to fly” tests starting at £59; Manchester’s pre-departure one goes for £66. People entering Scotland and Wales have less choice when they return. They must book tests through the government-backed CTM booking portal, paying £88 for a PCR test. Those returning from amber list countries pay £170 for two tests. Check reviews before buying. Expert Medicals is one of the cheapest providers on the government list at £45, says Churchill Insurance. Yet the group has incurred widespread criticism from consumers. Cheap is not always cheerful.

A survey from insurer Battleface finds that “just 4% of holidaymakers would be willing to pay £75 or more for a PCR test before travelling”, says Will Kirkman in The Daily Telegraph. “The average price that people would be willing to pay for a test was £22.” The hassle and cost of tests are likely to deter all but the most determined travellers – at least until governments get a vaccine-passport system in place.