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29 Apr 2021

Test for travel system can't cope with demand - even before the return of holidays

Thousands of travellers continue to test positive on return to UK, as test providers say they are overwhelmed ahead of international travel restarting

The day 2 and day 8 testing system, used to test international arrivals to the UK, is at risk of collapse.

Private testing providers approved by the government have told us they've been overwhelmed by the demand for tests from people entering the UK. This is despite the fact that relatively few people are using the system, as it's currently illegal to take a holiday abroad.

Since February anybody arriving in the country must take an expensive test on day 2 and day 8 after their arrival. There have been huge numbers of complaints from travellers about test results not arriving on time. Some haven't received day 2 results until day 20. Others describe the police turning up at their door to ask why they haven't been tested.

Now some providers themselves have admitted that they're struggling to cope.

Testing providers blame laboratories or the Royal Mail

They've told us that they haven't always been able to get crucial results to customers within 10 days and blame either the small number of labs handling them, or delays from Royal Mail.

Currently only those with an essential reason to travel can do so. This problem will be much worse when holidays and non-essential travel restart.

Yet some providers have told us that more than 2% of travellers are testing positive on average. If that were typical it would mean that thousands of people a week have been entering the country with Covid.

No Covid-19 test, no communication

Londoner Erkal Taskin paid a company called Anglia DNA £170 for the package of tests he needed after coming back from Turkey. But his first test, which should have been there on day 2, didn't arrive until he'd been in the country for a week. He also received the day 8 test at the same time. A few days later Anglia mistakenly sent him a third test.

Even after he took the day 2 test he didn't receive his results. Phoning and emailing failed to produce a response from Anglia. Unsure of what to do and unable to contact Anglia he decided to do the right thing and stay at home for 14 days.

He says: 'I wasn't sure when I could leave my house and there was no one to ask. I ended up waiting for longer before I could go back to work, which was a huge problem. It's ridiculous that I had to make that decision myself. I could be someone who is infected and not know about it but I was just left to wait indefinitely.'

Only after he contacted Anglia through Twitter and Which? responded to his tweets did it promise him a refund. It finally gave him his day 2 result 15 days after he'd arrived in the country. He still hasn't had his day 8 result.

Anglia DNA apologised to Erkal. It said that it always refunds customers in these circumstances and that it had successfully fulfilled over 10,000 day 2 and day 8 tests.

Confusion on UK tests leads to missed flights

Currently anybody coming into the UK needs to have a negative test result before travel and, unless they're exempt, book tests for day 2 and day 8 after their arrival.

After booking those tests they are given a code that they have to enter in a passenger locator form, before travel. Without this passengers may be prevented from boarding their flight.

One small provider told us that it had received 'thousands of requests from bewildered passengers stuck at airports around the world seeking a code to enter into their passenger location form'. Some had already missed flights, after failing to understand the rules.

The firm said that in one day they'd had over 300 voicemail messages. They asked to be removed from the government's list but were still there and still receiving anxious messages and calls a week later.

Another provider also said they considered leaving the list for similar reasons, while a third said that over the Easter period customer test results were arriving from the laboratory 'insanely late'.

Government alphabetical test provider list swamps some providers

While the test before travel can be a cheap Rapid Antigen test, the day 2 and day 8 tests are PCR and the package costs anything from £170 to over £500 depending on the provider. These must be booked through government-listed providers. The government provides an alphabetical list of firms on the .gov website with prices, but doesn't indicate the size of the provider or if they have availability.

The fact that the list is in alphabetical order means that companies at the top, offering relatively cheap tests, have been particularly swamped. There's no way for the consumer to know which companies will be able to cope with the volume of orders.

'If you've called your small business Aardvark Testing you've been overrun,' commented one provider. One company called itself 001Doctor and appeared at the top of the list but it's since been removed by the government, after being inundated with complaints on social media.

The government plans to introduce a 'traffic light' system for international travel from 17 May. But people coming from the lowest risk 'green' countries will still need to take a test on or before day 2 of their arrival. Those arriving from an 'amber' country will still need to take tests on day 2 and day 8. Those coming from 'red' countries will have to quarantine in a hotel as well as taking both tests.

It means that lab providers are going to be asked to process a lot more tests.

Laboratories can't get the results back on time

Although there are over 200 providers of day 2 and day 8 tests, relatively few laboratories actually do the testing. At least two of these labs have recently posted apologies for delays.

One of the biggest, Oncologica, said on its site that there had been an 'unprecedented increase in Covid testing enquiries and kit orders received' since the system of testing on the second and eighth day was introduced. It said its postal partners had also had problems.

Another major laboratory, Nationwide Pathology, apologised for 'large scale disruption to the delivery of both kits and samples.'

But one client of Oncologica told us that, while it had issues with Royal Mail deliveries taking up to a week, there had also been severe delays getting results even when tests were delivered on time. It said, 'we don't know why the laboratory didn't release the results for weeks'.

Thousands of samples being analysed each day

One laboratory suggested that up to 20,000 people might need these tests each day, even before holiday travel restarts. That would mean every day 20,000 samples are sent out, 20,000 samples returned and 20,000 sent to the laboratories for testing.

Most of these are sent by the Royal Mail, although some companies have now started to offer the option of using a courier. With Nationwide Pathology, sending kits through the post costs £159 but using a courier costs £209.

There have been numerous complaints on social media and in the press about results not arriving until after the 10 day quarantine period is over. Travellers with delayed tests report being called every day by test and trace to ask about results. One person told us that the police had turned up at their house after their test didn't arrive on time.

Royal Mail denies that it's the postal service that's at fault

The Royal Mail said: 'There are no reported delays in our network related to people using Royal Mail's priority post boxes to manage their test results. In fact we continue to receive praise for the high quality of the service we provide to the nation. Every day we service hundreds of thousands of test kits on behalf of the NHS both speedily and efficiently.'

It added 'We deliver mail items in line with the service specification agreed with the sending companies.'

Late Covid-19 test result, no refund

Even when travellers don't get test results they're not usually offered a refund. Both Nationwide Pathology and Oncologica say they don't guarantee to send results within 10 days.

When customers have complained Nationwide has responded by pointing to guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) that it doesn't have to provide refunds 'where there's no issue with the testing service'.

Positive test results for countries soar - before they're put on the red list

The importance of testing for arrivals in the UK is illustrated by the fact that one firm said 2.6% of its tests were positive. This is despite the fact that all of those people would have had to have shown a negative test certificate prior to departure in their countries of origin.

Assuming 20,000 people a day arriving in the country that means over 3,500 of them would be testing positive each week.

One provider told us that they saw a spike in test results being positive in the week before countries were placed on the red list, as India was last week.

What should you do if you book a day 2 and day 8 test but don't receive it?

The government has said that everybody should get tests on time but, as long as you've paid for a test, you can leave quarantine after 14 days if you haven't had results.

It also said that in exceptional circumstances the NHS may issue free tests to people who've purchased a test through a private company but not received it. Call 119 to enquire.

If you haven't received a test you're entitled to a refund, but the companies we've looked at say they won't give a refund if results are delayed.

Government response

The DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) said: 'We are carefully monitoring issues raised by the public, raising every complaint with private test providers. We also monitor all providers' performance, including their delivery and test turnaround times.

We will take rapid action against any company that is providing an inadequate service. In the first instance, they will receive a warning and are given five days to demonstrate they have addressed concerns, and if not, they are removed from the gov.uk list.'

Oncologica response

Oncologica told us that it can process up to 40,000 Covid-19 tests a day and that it hadn't yet reached capacity.

It also said: 'Postal service quality is outside our control; however, we make customers aware of the possibility of shipment delays arising from postal deliveries. This can relate to sample returns indicating they have been returned u201cdeliveredu201d in the Royal Mail tracked postal system, whereas in fact samples may not yet have been delivered to Oncologica and only have arrived at a Royal Mail depot, which can take up to 24 hours to deliver onto us. In the vast majority of cases, our customers experience no delays and our kits and results are supplied in a timely manner.

It said that it couldn't comment on claims by third-party test providers that they'd received its results late.

Nationwide Pathology response

'We recognise the significant frustrations that UK International Arrivals are currently facing and we all are working extremely hard to make the process as user friendly as possible. We also recognise the significant costs involved for families which is why we have consistently, since the start of this process in March 2021, been one of the least expensive providers on the DHSC list.

Nationwide Pathology is committed to providing the best service possible. We have performed over 80,000 day 2 and day 8 Covid tests since the end of March 2021. The vast majority of our clients have no issue and are very happy with the service they receive. Our complaints KPI is 0.29%.

Unfortunately, even though we use Royal Mail, who are a gold standard logistics provider, they have experienced some delays in getting samples to us. We understand how important results are to customers, but we are simply unable to test a sample that we do not have.