Foreign travel is about to get a bit easier, with new rules taking effect in England from Monday 19 July – but it looks like the hassle of Covid testing will be with us for a while yet.
Consumers face a bewildering choice of firms offering Covid tests – the UK government’s website lists hundreds of providers, the vast majority of which are companies that most people won’t have heard of. And there have been plenty of horror stories about people being left out of pocket or even missing flights after being let down by the firm that they paid.
Guardian Money has spent this week sifting through the options in an attempt to help you through the Covid testing maze, and we have identified some test providers that have delivered the goods for customers.
Before setting off from the UK, you may need to get proof of a negative Covid test in order to enter your destination country.
Most countries that require a Covid test will accept a PCR test, which will need to be done by a private provider.
Some countries will accept a rapid antigen (lateral flow) test, and these are quicker and cheaper.
Check the UK government website, and/or the government travel advice website of the country you are travelling to, for the latest details of entry requirements and tests required.
For example, on Thursday the site said anyone travelling to France who is fully vaccinated will need to provide evidence of a negative PCR test result taken within 72 hours of departure, or a non-NHS negative rapid antigen test taken in the previous 48 hours. Other countries that will currently accept a rapid antigen test include Italy, Germany and the US.
Some countries want to see a “fit to fly” or “fit to travel” certificate – a document provided alongside a negative test as proof that it’s safe for you to travel. Some providers charge extra for this, says consumer body Which?.
From 19 July, double-vaccinated holidaymakers from England travelling to amber-list countries will not have to quarantine on their return. Their “re-entry” requirements will be the same as those coming back from a green-list country.
Travellers will still have to take a pre-departure rapid antigen or PCR test before travelling back to England (NHS tests can’t be used), and a PCR test on or before day two after their arrival. However, they will no longer need to take a day eight test.
This week, the rules in Scotland and Wales for those returning from amber-list countries were broadly brought into line with those for England, while Northern Ireland will follow on 26 July.
With PCR tests, the sample is sent to a lab for processing and analysis. Individual PCR tests typically cost from £50 to £250 – many providers offer a range of packages at different prices.
Turnaround times vary from same-day results to 72-hour processing, with prices varying accordingly, says Covid Testing Network, a company that has launched a comparison site for PCR test providers.
Basically you have a choice between:
taking the test at home, where you are sent a swabbing kit and instructions, with some providers offering video calls with staff who can explain what you need to do;
or going to a clinic or walk-through/drive-through test site.
In terms of tests for leaving the UK, when getting your results in good time remains critical, Covid Testing Network recommends using a clinic. For arrival testing it recommends an at-home test on the basis that these are more convenient and usually cheaper.
When it comes to rapid antigen tests, these will often cost under £40, and it’s often possible to get the results in a matter of minutes.
The obvious problem for consumers trying to choose a test provider is that this is a very new market that’s trying to respond to a rapidly changing situation. That means prices fluctuate and that firms that have plenty of capacity today might run out of stock next week.
Plus, if it’s a home test kit, you will be dependent on the reliability of whoever is transporting it. That all makes it very difficult to authoritatively say which are the “best” providers.
The government publishes two lists of providers. A general list just provides names, contact details and where they operate. There is also a more useful list of providers of day two and day eight tests – at gov.uk/find-travel-test-provider – which lets you search by testing method, location and price. But in both cases there are hundreds of firms listed, and the government has been quick to say that it doesn’t endorse or recommend any specific provider and can’t help people with any problems that they might have.
Rory Boland, travel editor at Which?, says that its research has found that several testing providers, including some listed on the government websites, “are using misleading information about prices and not delivering results on time, leaving consumers at risk of financial loss as well as putting their travel plans in jeopardy”.
However, the government says it “closely monitors” performance. All private providers of Covid tests must meet minimum required standards and are reviewed by the independent United Kingdom Accreditation Service (Ukas). If a provider fails to meet standards, they receive a five-day warning, and can be removed from the official lists if they don’t improve.
How to choose
The first thing holidaymakers should probably do is check to see what deals their airline, holiday company or airport are offering. Many travel firms offer discounted tests to customers and include links on their websites. For many this will be the cheapest way to get a test.
For example, British Airways has negotiated discounts with a range of firms including Breathe Assured, Chronomics, CityDoc, Collinson, Eurofins, ExpressTest, Halo, LetsGetChecked, Medicspot, Qured, Randox and Wren Healthcare. The BA site indicates that, of those, the Breathe Assured, Eurofins and Randox home-test kits are the cheapest at less than £50 for a PCR test.
The travel company Tui, meanwhile, says testing kits for its package holiday customers start from £20 a person. It has teamed up with Chronomics and three others: Klarity, Randox and Screen4. Some people will feel reassured that a household-name airline or travel agent has done some due diligence before signing a deal with a test provider.
Check prices and ratings
For those befuddled by all the choice on offer, help is at hand from Covid Testing Network’s comparison site for PCR test providers. Guardian Money put the site through its paces this week.
Covid Testing Network was started as an emergency volunteer network of laboratories to provide additional Covid-19 testing capacity for frontline healthcare workers. Its sister organisation is an independent non-profit medical research lab in Oxfordshire. Earlier this year, the company decided to launch a website to help people find the right PCR test. It can be found at covid19-testing.org.
The site caters for those looking for a test before they set off, and those returning from a trip. You can search for tests to take at home or at a clinicor airport, and make a selection based on price or customer satisfaction.
The site effectively mirrors the government lists. However, it labels some as “trusted” or “verified” providers. It receives a referral fee from these companies but says scores are based on third-party reviews.
“Only those providers which have a high customer satisfaction [score] and which have capacity qualify to be listed as ‘trusted’,” says Akshay Kumar, one of the co-founders. These scores are a combination of Trustpilot, Google and Facebook reviews, plus any other information the site is able to obtain. “In that way it is ‘independent’, and we need a minimum number of reviews before we publish a score; and providers can’t influence the score we publish.”
Providers with a “verified” stamp on their listing have confirmed their information is accurate and regularly update the site about changes to pricing or products.
We tried the site and first looked at tests for leaving the UK. When we opted for a home test, it came up with 17 trusted and verified providers. Wren Healthcare had the highest customer satisfaction score, 4.9 out of 5, but charged £169. The cheapest trusted provider was Biogroup Laboratory (a 3.9 score), which quoted £75.
Selecting a local clinic returned three trusted and verified firms, including ExpressTest in Stratford, east London, which charged £80 and had a score of 4.7, and Wren Healthcare, which charged £139.
When we chose Heathrow airport for our test, there were eight trusted and verified results. Wren Healthcare again had the highest satisfaction score (4.9) but cost £139. Cheapest was ExpressTest (£59).
Then we looked at day-two PCR tests. This assumed we were fully vaccinated and travelling back from an amber list country after 19 July. When we went for a home test and made a choice based on customer satisfaction, there were 22 trusted and verified results, with ExpressTest coming top score-wise and quoting £79. The cheapest of the trusted providers was Assured Screening (4.6) at £54.
When we chose on price, Dante Labs – a verified provider – came top at £49. But its customer satisfaction score was only 2.4, and Guardian Money has received some complaints about the firm. On Trustpilot this week, Dante Labs’ UK site was rated “bad” at 1.5 out of five. Dante Labs told Guardian Money that “in recent weeks we have experienced issues with our customer contact centre and delivery partner,” and that “while a small number of customers have regrettably been adversely affected, the overwhelming majority have received a timely and cost-effective service”. It said it had invested significantly and offered a refund to those affected.
Turnaround times and guarantees
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to search the market for providers that offer the quickest results or any guarantees. Each firm has its own wording on this, and we couldn’t find many that said results were “guaranteed” to be provided within a certain period. Wren Healthcare, with a number of test centres mainly in the south of England, was one firm offering “guaranteed next day results”.
With some firms, courier delivery is included in the price, and you may be able to upgrade your delivery options by paying more for a speedier service.
Theoretically, there’s always the possibility of delays to postal or courier services, so if you are very worried about this, an in-clinic appointment may be the way to go.
Well-rated test providers: what they offer and cost
4.9 out of 5 customer satisfaction score on Covid Testing Network, 4.9 “excellent” rating on Trustpilot
Mainly clinic-based – the website lists nine locations, including Chiswick in west London and three in Kent. Home visits are also available. PCR tests for leaving and day two arrival cost £139, or £169 for a home visit. Its website says “guaranteed next day results”. Rapid antigen (lateral flow) tests cost £39, with results “within 15-20 minutes”.
4.7 out of 5 customer satisfaction score on Covid Testing Network, 4.6 “excellent” rating on Trustpilot
Offers in-person tests at more than 25 sites across the UK, from Southampton to Aberdeen, including several in London and at airports such as Heathrow, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Home test kits can also be booked for day two and day eight tests (for tests on or after 22 July). Prices for PCR tests vary – they start from £59. It says it aims to deliver PCR test results by 10pm the next day, but says it can take up to 48 hours “in exceptional circumstances” (home tests have different timelines). Rapid antigen (lateral flow) tests cost from £35, with results “in 30 minutes”.
4.6 out of 5 customer satisfaction score on Covid Testing Network, 4.5 “excellent” rating on Trustpilot
Various test locations, including one at London King’s Cross and sites in Birmingham, Darlington, Edinburgh, Leeds, Newcastle and Peterborough. Home tests are also available. Prices for PCR tests vary – from £59 at a testing location and from £54 at home. Its site says: “Results are normally processed within the guided turnaround time provided with each product.”
Medwyn Occupational Health
4.6 out of 5 customer satisfaction score on Covid Testing Network, 4.6 “excellent” rating on Trustpilot
Offers home tests, and also has a clinic in Dorking, Surrey. Various packages available: for pre-departure, home PCR tests are £99, with results “24 hours after lab receipt,” while an in-clinic test offering a “same-day result by midnight” is £159. For day two tests, home test kits are £99. Rapid antigen (lateral flow) tests cost £39.