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UK Covid test prices unfair, say Britons returning for sick relatives

A British woman who lives in France had to pay nearly £950 for private Covid-19 tests when she travelled to the UK to see her seriously ill elderly mother in May

11 June 2021
A man receiving a Covid-19 test nasal swab

People who wish to travel to or from the UK must purchase Covid-19 tests from a private companies from a government-recommended list Pic: Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock

By Thomas Brent

The UK’s decision to make travellers pay for Covid tests at private laboratories is unfair on Britons returning for urgent family reasons, says a British woman living in France who paid £946 for tests for one round trip to visit her elderly sick mother.

The UK requires people who are travelling to buy Covid-19 tests from private companies. Prices vary but can rise to almost £200 a test with the average price being around £80. Several airlines offer discounts on tests but the amount is still significant especially as several tests can be required for a visit.

“We had little choice,” said Elizabeth Mackie, 62, a teacher living near Béziers. “When you have a family emergency, you don’t have time to shop around [for Covid-19 tests], you just choose the clinic that is close to where you will be staying. If that clinic charges £160 or £200 for a test, you pay it. 

“It is quite disgusting. It is not the testing that I object to, it’s the price of the testing. 

“It is unfair to penalise people who have to travel for compelling reasons.

“My elderly mother is hospitalised with a very serious condition. We had to travel to help her and members of the family dealing with the difficult situation.”

France is classified as an amber country under the UK’s travel rules, meaning that anyone travelling from France to the UK must buy in advance two Covid-19 tests that are to be used on days two and eight of a 10-day quarantine. 

Travellers also have the option of purchasing a third test to be taken on day five, which allows them to leave quarantine early.

When the traveller wants to return to France, they will need to pay for another Covid-19 test in the UK, known as a ‘fit to fly’ certificate for travel. These are just standard Covid-19 tests, either PCR or rapid antigen, sold by private companies. 

Covid-19 tests in France are entirely free for French nationals or residents. The government has said they will also be free this summer for visiting foreign tourists. 

“The fact that the PCR tests are free in France just shows how valuable this service is,” Ms Mackie added. “I didn’t pay anything for my tests in France.”

The Connexion contacted the UK’s Ministry for Transport to ask why people in the UK had to pay for Covid-19 testing for travel when many NHS services are reported to currently not be full, and if the prices were fair.

We were referred to previous comments by Transport Minister Grant Shapps, who said:

“The public has always known travel will be different this year and we must continue to take a cautious approach to reopening international travel in a way that protects public health and the vaccine rollout.

“While we are making great progress in the UK with the vaccine rollout, we continue to say that the public should not travel to destinations outside the green list.”

The Connexion contacted the Ministry for Transport and the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK to ask if there were any exceptions to paying for Covid travel tests for emergency or essential travel reasons and were not informed of any such exceptions. 

Covid-19 tests in the UK are free for anyone with Covid-19 symptoms or anyone who wants to be tested out of caution. These tests cannot be used for travel purposes. 

People who wish to travel to or from the UK must purchase Covid-19 tests from private companies from a government-recommended list.

Ms Mackie and her partner paid £159 for a set of two Covid-19 tests for days two and eight of the quarantine, one £155 test each to leave quarantine early on day five, and another £159 each for tests for her and her partner to return to France.

Elizabeth Mackie had to pay close to £1000 for Covid-19 tests in the UK when she travelled there to see her seriously ill mother in May, 2021 Pic: Image provided by interviewee

Karen Rogers, 62, who lives near Carcassonne and owns a holiday villa rental company, had to travel back to the UK in February after her mother died. She paid over £300 in total for the appropriate Covid-19 tests in the UK.

“My mum was put into palliative care and I knew I had a limited time to get back to see her.

“She sadly passed away while I was on route back.”

She said she booked the two required Covid-19 tests through a government link and paid £210 for them. 

“I feel angry. On top of all the stress of getting to the UK, my mother dying… and then on top of that to find out I had to pay £210 for tests on arrival in the UK and a further £90 to leave the UK again… it’s crazy.”

One Connexion reader said, in response to a question we asked on Facebook, that they paid £179 for same-day PCR results in May in order for their child to come back home from university. 

“Outrageously expensive compared to what we pay in France,” the reader stated.

Another reported paying “a whopping £195” for same-day test results for their daughter to return to France from university in Scotland.

Mondassur, an insurance broker specialising in expatriate insurance, states that in France laboratories are currently charging people not in the healthcare system between €54 and €70 for a PCR test (roughly £46 to £60). This includes the cost of the required chemicals, quality controls, labour costs for sample and test preparation stages, biological validation time and test interpretation. 

Steven Endacott, a UK travel expert and a director of the Institute of Travel and Tourism (ITT), an organisation grouping around 2,000 travel and tourism professionals, said Covid travel tests in the UK were “a ridiculous amount of money”.  

“The government has thrown UK consumers to the wall and said you can only use a private test,” he told The Connexion.

“When we were at the height of the Covid outbreak, you could argue that the testing capacity was under strain and we did not want it blocked up with people going on holiday. That is no longer the case.”

The ITT is calling on outbound UK travel companies to work together to bring down the cost of Covid-19 tests for travel. 

“The UK Government has failed consumers with a list of ‘approved’ test providers that do not take into consideration price, convenience of location or reliability of service,” a statement written by the ITT board of directors notes.

“The UK outbound travel industry therefore needs to take the lead and create a recommended supplier list that we all jointly promote.”

Sean Tipton, the media relations manager for ABTA, the UK’s leading association of travel agents and tour operators, said the cost of testing in the UK has been dropping, but that was down to “commercial arrangements between companies in the travel industry”.

“We have been asking the government to take action there but they haven’t,” he said.

He said that there are other solutions to costly tests provided by private companies, citing France as an example. 

“In Europe, borders are starting to open up, largely because of the vaccination programme, meaning fully vaccinated people can travel without restrictions. 

“In the UK, NHS staff have done a really incredible job of rolling out vaccines, so we’re well ahead of a lot of countries and we should be able to take advantage of that. But no, you have to have a double PCR test,” he said, referring to the mandatory tests on day two and eight of quarantine. 

“The UK government should consider pursuing other options to expensive private tests as a matter of urgency,” he said.

Mr Tipton said it appeared the UK government was banking on the economic benefits of domestic tourism, but that it did not make sense.

“The figure usually quoted is that a foreigner on holiday will usually spend three times more per capita than a domestic tourist,” he said.

“Domestic holidaymakers will often go on shorter trips, stay in self-catering accommodation, and use their own transport, so may contribute very little.”

He also said the UK government had not done enough to financially support struggling travel businesses.

“A lot of companies will go out of business if the government does not change its strategy or provide financial assistance. They have provided support to airlines, but not to travel agents and tour operators,” he said.

Read more:

France Covid cases fall below UK for first time since February

Covid-19: Rules for travel to and from France

Do I need a Covid test to travel from UK to France as French resident?

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