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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)

  • Chris says:

    Does this mean these tests are not suitable for fit to fly? I am using one tomorrow for travel to australia

    • Rob says:

      F2F is fine, those tests do not require sequencing.

      • Track says:

        Gosh, then you end up like Polly in Singapore.

        But if have to quarantine on arrival to Australia anyway, than yes, makes no difference.

  • Caroline says:

    Thank goodness you shared, I was merrily assuming I could just use the rapid PCR on arrival at LHR. I assume we’re now waiting for the test providers to confirm who has the capability and where? Like most business travellers I need to land, test, isolate … for how long? = child care issues etc. Trying to be patient …

    • Jen T says:

      We’ve just booked the Halo test at Sofitel T5 – means I can get to work the following morning as the results are back in 5 hours.

  • George says:

    Any ideas for the cheapest options for North London, arriving to Heathrow?

    • George says:

      I know express test is £69, wondering if there’s anything cheaper, yet still reliable?

      • George says:

        At risk of being seen as mad for talking to myself, I’ll just add that Collinson is £55.20 with AMEX20 discount code.

        • Michael says:

          I am using the Collinson walk in at St Pancras with 20% discount code from BA. at the same price as you.

          Used them before for lateral flow and they are extremely pleasant but will have to update on how long to get a result from the PCR test after I take it.

          • Scott says:

            Did my day 2 PCR with them yesterday around 4pm. Results back today around 1pm.

          • Michael says:

            Thanks Scott, fingers crossed for a similar turn around time

  • Alan Begg says:

    Been looking at the Gov.uk site, and as usual it leaves more questions than answers. For those of us that don’t live in London and transit via LHR to a regional English airport, at what point are you supposed to quarantine? Now I’m making an assumption that as the guidance is that you must “quarantine in your home or the place you are staying” that the connector flight is fine. Can anyone confirm or point to clearer guidance?
    Even if they sort out 3 hour tests, landing at LHR, getting through customs, getting a test and the results before the connecting flight would be a challenge, plus you can’t really isolate at the airport

    • Rhys says:

      Of course the connector flight is fine. They aren’t going to make get out at Heathrow and quarantine!

      • PhatGit says:

        I’d never rule anything out with this government, or the opposition for that matter

      • john says:

        How about a connector tube then train up north?!

        • Rhys says:

          Using public transport after flying to get to your final destination to quarantine has, I believe, always been allowed. Even in the depths of last year.

        • John says:

          You can walk, drive, take a taxi, train, bus, ferry, swim, jetski, etc as long as it meets a reasonable interpretation of “direct” to the place where you will isolate.

    • Renaud says:

      The guidance has always been that isolation starts once you’re home, not as you arrive in the country. You’re supposed to make it as quick as possible and try and minimize social contact as you make your way home, but not everyone can afford a private ride 🙂

      • PhatGit says:

        In my case, 5 hrs in T5, a 1 hr flight then 2 hour drive home. Pretty certain I can avoid others during the 2 hour drive. Not so sure about the other 7 or 8 hours at customs, security, in the plane and baggage claim!!

    • S says:

      The real issue for people going places other than London will be that there aren’t as many options for testing at many other airports (whether you arrive via Heathrow or not). This is going to be very problematic for anyone due to arrive, for example, on 23rd-24th December – by the time you swab, then post the test off and it arrives at the lab, you’ll be isolating over Christmas. I’m assuming lab capacity will be severely reduced until say Tues 27th, then have some backlog to work through. And if there isn’t an affordable local in person option, you’ve no choice but to post it off.

  • Aston100 says:

    Arriving into Heathrow from the US early morning in first week of Jan.
    Need to be able to go into the work place the next day.
    Under the current rules, is this impossible?

    I’m guessing using Express test at LHR would allow return to work the day after next, and would be the shortest amount of time away from the workplace (1 day away) without paying outrageous prices at a private clinic?

    • Rhys says:

      Not impossible but could be expensive (rapid PCR). Anything else you are risking the result return time.

      Worth noting that the testing providers seem to be working on the assumption that these restrictions are in place only for 3-6 weeks at the moment. Of course, we’ve been burned by those sorts of predictions before….

    • Rich says:

      Depends how important it is that you get released in time for work.

      Plenty of reports of providers promising 2359 next day, but actually delivering the result the same day. You can’t rely on it, but you can choose one with a good reputation.

      • john says:

        Or do multiple tests to try and improve the chances!

        • Tracey says:

          That’s still a question isn’t it? If you also take another PCR test that comes back before your official day2 test are you released from isolation?

    • Scott says:

      Well, I took a day 2 test yesterday and went to work today. Result came back negative a little while ago.

      I suppose others will do the same rather than isolate at home etc. (Not condoning this, but some will isolate, a lot of others won’t unfortunately – I take precautions all the time, but that’s probably no arguement).

      Not sure who exactly is going to be checking up on you especially as you’ve got a couple of days to do the test anyway after arrival (6 people in my tube carriage during the LHR to King’s Cross ride yesterday with no masks and zero consequence for them).

      It may be that your workplace knows you’ve been abroad and refuses to let you back on site until you can show a negative result, in which case you need to “isolate”.

  • Dr Oxford says:

    Hi Rob – based on my experience in the hospital, there might be another factor at play here. Although we don’t use the 3 hour PCR tests, we do use rapid tests for all our admissions (ID-NOW- https://www.globalpointofcare.abbott/en/product-details/id-now-covid-19.html).

    Our challenge is the swab for these is different to the standard 8 hour PCR swab, meaning that the swab cannot be sequenced. We therefore have a standard PCR as a backup.

    Unsure whether this would apply to the rapid PCRs used by these providers, but could well be that they are unable to sequence the sample and are unwilling to take two swabs ‘just in case’ the rapid one is positive and needs sequencing.

    Ultimately – this whole thing is a failure of the government to acknowledge and plan for the likely risk of variants – which everyone within the scientific community would have been able to predict. Not linking the science to the realities of the need for international travel means that there has been a woeful lack of investment into rapid tests at the airport in comparison to other countries where the state has the ability to test every passenger individually if required. Imagine how different this situation would be if the government had invested in providing free or heavily subsidised PCR testing at the border…

    • Polly says:

      Exactly what Singapore are doing, and look what happened, taken off to a facility for 4 days for retesting, even tho my arrival PCR was negative. They said it was positive at the same time. So yes, other countries can sequence very quickly.

      Saying that, Sofitel T5 appear to be doing a 3 hr arrival upgraded PCR test now, so we will book that one.

  • ianM says:

    Shout out for simplytestme – refunded my redundant LFT day 2 test and ordered PCR day 2 for £42 pretty good service

  • Mike says:

    Qured managed to convert the Fit to Fly PCRs we panic bought when the results changed into Day 2 PCR whilst our samples were on route to the lab this morning. (We now have different reference numbers to on the original PLF though so re-submitted the PLF on advice from the helpline.) Qured also refunded Lateral Flows ordered pre-rules change.

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