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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)

  • TGLoyalty says:

    Only 50% of the U.K. labs can identify the S Gene drop out – a quick Alpha / Omicron identifier

    Perhaps their ‘rapid’ test facility can’t and therefore is ineligible for arrivals testing?

  • Rich says:

    I don’t think S-gene dropout is the issue. Either you’re positive or negative, and that’s good enough to decide whether you’ need to stay in isolation. Don’t need to know the variant for that.

    S-gene dropout isn’t good enough to properly identify Omicron. For that, you need full sequencing, in a timely manner so your contacts can be put into isolation.

    I think 10 hours would be workable for a lot of people. Get tested, go home, wake up to your result.

    • pauldb says:

      As far as the law is concerned, it only matters if Omicrom is “suspected”, and S-gene dropout is deemed enough for that.

      • abc says:

        I think this is only the case if there is actually a travel history to southern Africa or contact to another (suspected) omicron case (at least currently, will probably change at some point), as various other variants (eg alpha) also have this S-gene dropout.

    • Rich says:

      Ah, didn”t know that. Thanks.

  • Andrew says:

    And with the US on the brink of announcing more stringent testing and isolation measures, there goes the travel industry until the Spring. Makes that dual takeoff event at LHR slightly bitter sweet now. I wonder if the government will bring back a targeted furlough scheme for the sector.

  • Fraser says:

    But how can you go to a clinic to get a PCR test if you’re required to isolate until the test result arrives?!

    • FCP says:

      Going to get a PCR test is a permitted exception to the isolation.

    • Yuff says:

      You are allowed to go out for a test, that has always been the case.
      This is a cop out as anyone who has a negative pcr is in effect not infected.
      Hiding behind isolating until you have a negative day 2 test is inconveniencing more passengers deliberately where there is a solution to avoiding the isolation.
      As each day goes by the scaremongering increases whilst the stats get better each day…………
      When this is shown to be the charade most people suspect it to be it will be much harder to get people to conform to these draconian measures.
      By all means take precautions at the borders but if you get back from abroad from a country which has much lower covid cases and expect them to isolate because of omicron then when there is a real danger see how difficult it is to get us to believe them again…….

      • Jo says:

        Sorry that is such a pathetic comment. If it inconveniences you that much stay in the UK.

  • FCP says:

    DP – So i arrived back in the UK yesterday, after 4am, so needed a PCR test. I had booked with Collinson Manchester Airport Drive through, on Saturday night. £55 with the Amex 20% discount.
    Had the test at 1pm, result ‘guaranteed’ by 23.59 following day, but received at 19.30 same day.
    6 1/2 hour turnaround.
    Maybe not busy, maybe busy but no at capacity, no idea, but very happy at the quick release!

    • Andrew says:

      That’s encouraging – I’m sure their SLA times are the worst case scenario to cover themselves, but in reality much quicker. The notion of it will put people off travelling, so capacity should be manageable.

    • Sandgrounder says:

      My dad had a day 2 in clinic self swab with Biograd for 19.99 at 10am, advertised as results within 48hrs, but were back late evening same day. Available near Manchester airport, Warrington and Bootle.

    • Caroline says:

      That’s excellent, but I see in the HfP article that a Collinson test isnt valid? I’d really like to do an airport test and feeling confused as to what I can/can’t do!

      • Rhys says:

        You can do the Collinson PCR tests, just not the rapid 3-hour ones.

        FCP just got lucky and had their result within 6 hours, although this certainly isn’t guaranteed.

        • JK says:

          Collinson used to say for the old Day 5 tests that if you do the test before 4pm then you’ll get the result same day before midnight. I’d say that’s what happened here. Do the test in the evening and you might be waiting till the next evening.

  • riku says:

    I don’t see how this has killed business trips FROM the UK. You get a test kit before you leave, do the test when you get off the plane when you come back. Drive home via a drop box and you get the results the next day. If you’re working from home you spend one night at home isolating.

    • Mike says:


    • J says:

      If one person on the plane tests positive for Omicron, it’s likely every passenger will get a call from track and trace. Not worth the risk

    • Julian Power says:

      Drop boxes seem to close at 3-4pm so if you have a late flight are you really going to get it the next day?

    • abc says:

      Where do you get the test from to drop off, though? (Serious question, if they send it to your home and it often won’t arrive for you to take on the trip with you, unless your trip is very short.)

      • riku says:

        the test kits have a shelf life of six months and take 2-3 days to arrive. So unless your trip starts before 5 December you can get a kit now and use it for any business trip until May 2022. You are allowed to order a test kit before you book your plane ticket.

  • Aaron C says:

    It’s a bit of a cop out really. The reality is a negative test is enough and any further work on the positive (eg omicron or not) can be done later with the person remaining in isolation while it is.

    This is really going to kill short breaks since it needs and extra day of leave while waiting the result.

  • Roy says:

    I suspect that at least part of the reason why the big providers aren’t doing this is that it’s not clear how long these new roles are going to be in place.

    If it starts to become clear that the new testing requirements are here to stay for the foreseeable future, they may well find it worth their while to invest in the capacity needed to offer the premium service.

    • Nick says:

      Exactly! What company would make a large investment in more equipment and staff, only to find that Omicrom is largely a damp squib with regards to hospitalisation, or death levels in a few weeks time. We just won’t know until further research is done, and the only way that that can be done effectively, is when there are a large number of people who actually have the variant and have a test.

    • Rhys says:

      Yes, almost certainly 🙂

      It is – fundamentally – a business decision. Upend their entire supply chain (again) for a 3 week stint to provide rapid tests, or try and offer higher capacity during the three weeks and return to antigen testing after?

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