Features

Testing times

30 Jun 2021 by Tom Otley
Collinson-Covid-Testing-DSC_2298

For travellers, it looks like Covid testing is here for the long haul – and there’s nothing simple about the process…

Now that travel is opening up once again, we are all faced with the issue of testing. Some countries require it, some do not, and the exact nature of the test – whether rapid flow/antigen or PCR – also adds uncertainty. The rules change frequently, yet are mandatory, and are imposed at either end of the journey. They can also differ for departing and arriving passengers. So what can be done to enable travel while also keeping us safe?

THE TESTS

The aim of the tests is to determine whether a traveller has Covid-19. There are two main types – an antigen or lateral flow test, and a PCR test. Which is required will differ depending on where you are travelling to and from.

What is certain is that the whole experience of testing – demonstrating your negative Covid-19 status to the relevant authorities and then possibly entering quarantine and undergoing a further testing regime – is depressing demand for both leisure and business travel considerably.

GREEN COUNTRY

For travel from the UK to a green country, the rules at the time of going to press in June are that on your return you have to fill in a passenger locator form. This gives the government the details of your passport or the travel document you’ll use when you arrive at the UK border, your travel information, including times and dates, the address where you will stay in the UK (if applicable) and the booking reference for the Covid-19 test you’ll need to take after arriving home – you have to undergo a PCR test on or before Day 2, with the day that you land counting as Day 0.

You also have to obtain a negative test before leaving the destination for return to the UK. This can be an antigen/lateral flow test, and many hotels are offering it for free or for a nominal cost, as are some travel companies. Note that you can’t simply self-administer an antigen test and take a photo of the negative result – it has to be taken by a healthcare professional or witnessed by video link to ensure it has been properly conducted. You need to obtain a certificate, normally with a QR code generated, for it to be acceptable. To read about the process of undertaking a video antigen test see:

Review: British Airways x Qured rapid antigen test

AMBER COUNTRY

If you are coming back from an amber country you need to complete a passenger locator form, obtain a negative test before leaving the destination and have pre-purchased a Day 2 and Day 8 package.

POSTAGE PROBLEMS

It’s clear that despite the excellent service offered by some testing companies, all have suffered from negative customer feedback. This is down to several reasons, the first of which is issues with Royal Mail. Without exception, all of the testing companies we spoke to blamed at least some of their problems on the postal service. Alex Templeton, chief executive of Qured – a government-approved testing company that appears on the recommended list of British Airways (with a discount code) – says: “When kits were being sent directly to our Cambridge laboratory, local delays at our Royal Mail delivery office meant that it was taking 48 or sometimes even 72 hours to make the last mile delivery to the lab. This was causing a really poor customer experience. We came up with a workaround whereby they are sent to our fulfilment centre in Bristol. We then have them couriered to Cambridge to circumvent those local delivery issues.”

The problems are encountered both when sending out the testing packages to customers and also on their return to the laboratories. To travel to some countries, it may be necessary to have a negative result before travel – if your test does not arrive in time then you will have to postpone or cancel. On your return, if your testing package does not arrive at home, then – to take the example of the Day 2 test – you are theoretically in breach of government regulations, although it is unclear what would happen in those circumstances. If you are in quarantine and your Day 8 test arrives late then your isolation will be extended while you wait and then send it back to the laboratory.

“We know that the main customer frustration is slower than expected results,” Templeton says. “We have worked incredibly hard to provide a consistent level of service where you have certainty that you are going to get those results back in 24 hours from receipt at the lab.”

In the case of Collinson, the Royal Mail issue has made them cautious about offering testing at home, though joint CEO David Evans says the company is “looking at ways of offering the service in the future”. In the meantime, Evans points out that it offers testing at seven locations, including six airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, East Midlands and Manchester, with tests such as Day 2 and Day 8 being able to be taken at a combination of these locations. A traveller could fly into one airport and take the Day 2 on landing, and then visit a more convenient location for the Day 8 test (or Day 5 test and release).

TESTING TERMS

Frustrations over delays have also increased because the government has given names to the different testing regimes that can give unreasonable expectations to travellers. An example is the so-called “Day 2 and Day 8” tests. This is when you return to the UK and have to quarantine at home, take a PCR test on or before Day 2 and send it off to a provider (you can also leave home to take the test at a registered provider). You then do the same on Day 8. If both of these tests are negative then you can end your quarantine.

The expectation created by the “Day 2 and Day 8” term is that you will get out of quarantine on Day 8. But this is not the case, and to find out why see our “Traveller tales” panel. The fact is that if you arrive back in the UK and go through this testing regime, you will be lucky to be released on Day 10 after arrival. The same applies for the Day 5 Test to Release system, for which it could be Day 8 before you are released.

HIGH DEMAND

The late announcement of which countries are green, amber or red, the frequent changing of rules both in the UK and elsewhere, and the varying requirements have led to a lot of confusion and a sudden rush for testing as travellers realise that they need to obtain negative results before or after travel. As one reader wrote on our website (speaking about one testing company): “They have bitten off more than they can chew. Several providers on the government list say ‘sold out’ or ‘limit reached’, which is far more responsible than accepting orders they cannot fulfil.”

All of the companies we spoke to admitted that they have had problems coping with demand, although they say they are investing in new capabilities. Prenetics, for instance, says it has multiple laboratories. “We have an R&D lab in Oxford and eight mobile labs for film production and broadcasting,” says Avi Lasarow, its chief executive for the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “We have labs at Longcross Studios and Pinewood Studios and we are building one in Greenwich that will have a capacity for 15,000 [tests] per day to support the travel industry.”

Other providers do not “own” the laboratories, and even Prenetics has partner labs. “To deliver great customer experience, you want to get closer to the customer,” he says. “And that’s the concept of the last mile. There are multiple providers that have agreements with laboratories. It’s not an unusual model. You have lots of doctors in London’s Harley Street and they send your results away to a lab.”

PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS

The companies are also having to deal with the public perception that, unlike the government laboratories, many of them have been set up to make a quick profit and in some cases lack the capabilities they promise on their websites. It’s impossible to know if this is true or not. For every customer who paid a company for a test that never arrived, there are others who received good service from a different company.

Prenetics, which has arrangements with airlines such as Virgin Atlantic as well as Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, has been around for several years. Lasarow tells me: “Our history is that we are a preventative health company. When the pandemic came, we repositioned our laboratories.”

Qured’s Templeton says: “We are an established healthcare provider. We started the business in 2017, providing on-demand doctor services. We’ve been offering testing services since the earliest days of the pandemic. We have been working with a number of sporting bodies, corporates and travel partnerships.”

Frank Joseph runs Dam Health, which has taken a slightly different approach by partnering with various facilities up and down the UK, allowing people to take their tests in these places and thereby avoiding a lot of the stresses and strains of inaccurate results and postal delays. “In the past four to five months we have opened up in 25 clinics and by the end of June we will have doubled that number,” he says. “We are in most towns and cities near an airport of some description and have managed to create that network either with our own staff or through an affiliate scheme with chemists and other private clinics that have the skillset to deliver. Once we have taken the swabs we then use private couriers to send the samples to one of our three laboratories.”

DAM Health

PRICING

Then there’s also the wide disparity in fees. The main costs are those for the lab and then shipping, as well as customer service. One provider estimated that when a customer called up, dealing with the query might cost between £2 and £3 per call. Then if a test is positive (about 2 per cent through April and May, according to Qured), there is a mandatory requirement on laboratories to run genome sequencing on the sample, which is an extra expense borne by the testing company. If a company doesn’t have a lab that can do this, it might cost them £125 to send to another lab to conduct it.

Joseph says that his costs come in the form of paying trained staff, the venue for in-clinic testing, the lab machinery, the consumable reagents to run the tests, PPE kit, the courier service, disposal of waste materials, administration costs and customer service. He points out that some travel companies may choose to offer tests at cost price or even subsidise them because they are making their profit on the holidays or flights.

There is also the matter that VAT is being levied by the government on the price of PCR tests. Providers are campaigning for this to be removed. Templeton says: “We understand that the government is considering removing the VAT requirement on what is, after all, a diagnostic test. This would be very welcome since this would immediately allow us to pass on these cost savings to our patients.”

LOOKING AHEAD

If you are hoping that testing will go away any time soon, your optimism may be in vain. “I suspect [it will go on] until the world is either relatively completely vaccinated or Covid has made its way around,” Joseph says. “If the number of cases goes up, but the numbers requiring hospital treatment  are contracting, then we can continue to do what we need to in terms of travel, work and socialising. But if we have huge numbers with the virus then there will be new variants, and so testing will be needed for us to have the knowledge to act appropriately.”

TRAVELLER TALE EXAMPLES

Day 2 and Day 8 testing package

Traveller Tom is flying back to the UK from an amber country. He has to quarantine and show proof that he has pre-purchased Day 2 and Day 8 tests (a requirement of boarding his flight back and gaining entry at the UK border).

He arrives on a Monday morning (Day 0). Day 1 starts on Tuesday morning. He can conduct his Day 2 test either on Day 0, Day 1 or Day 2 and is mildly interested to know the result, although it doesn’t make much difference to his life since he is quarantining anyway.

It’s a different story with the Day 8 test. This is the one that, when he gets his negative result, will allow him to leave quarantine. For obvious reasons, this cannot be taken before Day 8, and many providers ensure you don’t by not delivering it until Day 8. That means often you don’t get it until the afternoon of Day 8.

For Traveller Tom, Day 8 is the Tuesday of the following week. He conducts the test, jots down the tracking number on the package and catches the last post.

He then tracks the parcel. It will take, probably, at least 24 hours to get to the laboratory, and that’s if nothing goes wrong. If it doesn’t arrive at the lab until the Wednesday evening and is then processed on the Thursday, the result may not arrive until the following Monday, 14 days after he landed. By which time, he’ll be annoyed and wishing he did the Day 5 Test to Release test…

Day 5 Test to Release

The Test to Release option comes at an extra cost – sometimes £99 on top of the £199 for the Day 2 and Day 8 package (to use testing provider Qured as an example). Remember that you will need to have paid for – and be conducting – the Day 2 and Day 8 tests before being allowed to do the Day 5 Test to Release. You can’t, for instance, simply pay for a Day 2 PCR test and then buy a Day 5 Test to Release. (Keeping up?)

Taking the same set of circumstances as above, Day 5 for Traveller Tom, who landed on a Monday morning, is Saturday, so you see the problem. In a best-case scenario he won’t be getting his test result until the Tuesday afternoon, so in fact that means getting out at the end of Day 8. And there you have the current reality of travel.

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