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Why are most 3 hour ‘rapid PCR’ tests NOT valid for UK arrivals testing?

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As of 4am yesterday, anyone arriving into the UK from any destination outside the Common Travel Area (Ireland, Channel Islands, Isle of Man) has to take a PCR test within two days of arrival.

More importantly, you must isolate at home or in a hotel until your PCR test result arrives. In one stroke, this has killed all short inbound business trips to the UK. It also makes it very inconvenient to do a business trip from the UK given the isolation requirement on your return.

PCR test on arrival in UK

When this was announced, I assumed that it would lead to a jump in the 3 hour ‘rapid PCR’ market. ExpressTest has been offering this at some locations, including Heathrow, for departing passengers for some time, and Collinson also offers it.

Unfortunately, this won’t work.

Collinson announced on Monday that its 3-hour rapid PCR tests do not meet the standards laid down by the Government for arriving passengers:

Many other testing firms will be in the same position due to the different processing and reporting requirements versus Fit to Fly tests, including the need to sequence international arrival samples should they be positive.

It seems that whilst it would – in theory – be possible to offer rapid PCR testing for international arrivals, the capacity isn’t there. To offer a reliable rapid PCR testing service at such short notice, overall testing capacity would have to be cut substantially which make it impossible to process PCR tests for standard customers.

ExpressTest currently offers, at its Heathrow in-person testing centres, a guarantee that you get your result by 10pm the following day.

We have been told that the testing providers are working on new procedures which will allow them to speed up the process. It appears that it won’t be possible to reduce the time frame below 10 hours, however, and that in most cases you will be waiting 24 hours for a result.

That said, more exclusive (and expensive) private clinics are likely to be able to offer rapid PCR testing for day 2 arrivals. The Regenerative Clinic – which I have used before for standard tests and can recommend – charges £399 for a 3-hour PCR test. This is because smaller private clinics operate at much lower volumes, not using their full laboratory capacity. Rapid testing is less disruptive to their overall operation than mass-testing providers like ExpressTest and Collinson.

Comments (144)

  • Barry B says:

    I’m arriving LHR Term 2 on Dec 9 1030am. Plan on taking Day 2 test at Express Test Term 2. Any idea on when I should book appt time, 2 hrs after landing, or 3, 4, 5. I’ve heard horror stories about Term 5.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated

    • Nick says:

      Doesn’t matter, they’ll accept you later in the day if your flight is late. With the current shitshow of BA timekeeping almost nothing arrives on time anyway so they have to be flexible. You give them your flight number during booking so if they really wanted they could track and adjust.

  • Worksop Dave says:

    Getting made redundant from my job in travel last year was a blessing in disguise as the industry is screwed for the foreseeable future.

    Forecasts of a recovery in 2024 seemed pessimistic at the time but now they seem realistic.

    • Polly says:

      Hope you managed to get another decent job in the meantime. Still a blow being made redundant. I still remember the day Dan Air collapsed and we were all given our P45s. Missed it so much.

      • Worksop Dave says:

        I found another job but yes as you said it was still a blow at the time (even though it was obvious for months that it was coming)

  • Lewis says:

    The government advice is to take a PCR test (that shouldn’t be booked through the NHS) upon arrival in England, within 48 hours of arrival. I’m struggling to find on government pages where it states exactly what type of PCR test is required and why some are suitable and others aren’t (such as a F2F). If the government state ‘PCR’ it means PCR, regardless of sequencing, test procedure or any other science based operation behind the scene, a PCR test is still a PCR test.
    Where is it stated that a PCR Fit to fly test cannot be used?

    • Danny says:

      The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel and Operator Liability) (England) Regulations 2021, Schedule 8, Paragraph 6

      • Danny says:

        It’s theoretically possible that some departure tests match those requirements, in which case the limiting factor is that those tests wouldn’t provide you with a valid number to add to your PLF, which the gov advice says you have to do

        • Danny M says:

          I agree, I could not find anywhere on the government website that said a specific type of PCR test is required. I was going to book a fit to fly PCR test w/ 3hr results… However expresstest.Co.Uk told me that fit to fly test does not provide the booking code required to complete the passenger locator form before you fly.

  • Mark says:

    I’ve seen the term ‘rapid PCR’ banded around as a term for many tests when actually what they’re doing is a LAMP test which can be done much quicker (90 mins or so). The latter cannot be sequenced but is a type of nucleic acid amplification test and so is used interchangeably (and incorrectly). This is what’s done in Barbados upon arrival for example (or was earlier this year).

  • Ann says:

    We are due to fly to Orlando 11.12. BBC has just announced that new Covid travel rules state Covid testing 24 hours ahead of travel yet CDC website states 1 day. Am flying at 10 in the morning so wanted to test day before at 7.30.am Is that ok? Also CDC states Covid viral test. Can that be an antigen or has to be a PCR?

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