Coronavirus UK: Thousands of British tourists scramble to get home before new test rule

Britons abroad face a race to get home before rules requiring international travellers to test negative for coronavirus prior to arriving in England come into force – and the UK Government has not yet released full guidance on which tests they will accept.

From 4am this Friday, those arriving by boat, train or plane – including UK nationals – will have to take a test up to 72 hours before leaving the country of departure.

But there is still confusion over which tests will be accepted, with the latest UK Government guidance issued yesterday referring to how lateral flow tests might be allowed ‘in some cases’ – and saying further advice will be issued to passengers.

Lateral flow tests are cheaper and give results in 30 minutes, while the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests take up to three days to identify positive cases.

Britons will need to present proof of a negative test result to their carrier on boarding while the UK Border Force will conduct spot checks on arrivals. 

Conservative MP Henry Smith, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on aviation, said he welcomed the test requirement for every passenger coming into the UK, pointing out that he had suggested it in the Commons as long ago as last January.

But the MP, whose constituency includes Gatwick Airport, told MailOnline: ‘It has been a long time in the gestation and it is not completely clear as to how it all works.

Passengers at London Heathrow Airport last week. Rules requiring international travellers to test negative for coronavirus before arriving in England come into force this Friday

‘It does seem to be taking an extremely long time to pin down something that a lot of other countries have been doing for many months now. This shouldn’t take as long as it has. 

‘All of this is complex, but it is relatively straightforward in terms of asking people to take certain types of test. I don’t see what the delay is in terms of being clear about that is.’

How to get a Covid test in destinations popular with UK tourists 


Spain has banned British tourists from flying there but those already in the country can fly back home.

If they test positive they will have to quarantine at their hotel or holiday accommodation for 14 days.

The country has embarked on a large increase in its PRC and antigen testing, which now stand at 180,000 a week.

A (Transcription-Mediated Amplification (TMA) test takes two hours to show results and costs about €60 – compared to €100 for a PCR.


France banned British tourists on December 20 following the emergency of the new strain of coronavirus.

French citizens and truck drivers can enter but only with a negative PCR test from the last 72 hours.

People in France can search through a map at site to find a test centre near them, including whether they offer PCR or antigen tests.

The tests cost €54 but are reimbursed for those on the French health system.


Entry into Italy is only allowed for residents or those with ‘absolute necessity’, declared in writing.

The country offers PCR tests (called ‘un tampone’ in Italian, or a ‘swab’) and antigen tests (called ‘tampone rapido’ in Italian, or a ‘fast swab’).

Italy is thought to have encouraged Britain to adopt the rapid tests after becoming the first country to hugely invest in them last year.

Those looking to get an urgent PCR test can call the 1500 number for help and the tests are free because they are considered emergency procedures.


British nationals cannot enter the US if they have been in the UK, Ireland, Schengen zone, Iran, Brazil or China within the previous 14 days

The test of choice in the US is a PCR, which can be turned around in 12 hours – although there are concerns that these are not accurate enough.

There are calls for more rapid antigen tests, which can be turned around in 15 minutes and cost $5 each, compared to PCRs which are about $100 each.

The latest guidance released by the Department for Transport yesterday stated: ‘We will establish the standards that tests must meet in regulations. 

‘This will include that the test must be of a diagnostic-standard test such as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, and could in some cases include LAMP and lateral flow tests within set limits. 

‘We will provide clear guidance and advice to passengers regarding testing standards and capacity.’  

New arrivals who flout the rules will face a minimum £500 fine, while the operator who transported them will also be fined.

Passengers will still have to quarantine for 10 days regardless of their test results, transport minister Robert Courts said in a statement.

British nationals attempting to return home who test positive must not travel and must follow the local guidance in their host country, and contact the nearest consulate if they need support.

‘If a passenger arrives in England without a pre-departure negative test result they will be fined,’ Mr Courts said.

‘We will amend the International Travel Regulations so that fines, starting at £500, can be levied on non-compliant passengers.’

Travellers must take an internationally approved test, and Mr Courts said guidance on what was acceptable would be made available to passengers and carriers. 

‘We will keep test standards and innovative testing technologies under review,’ he said.

The new rules apply to almost every country in the world, including those on England’s travel corridor list, and further compliance checks are due to be conducted by Border Force staff.

Passengers travelling to England from other UK countries, as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, will not be covered by the new regulations.

Children under 11 travelling from any country are also exempt from pre-departure testing.

The DfT said there would also be a limited number of exemptions for people like hauliers, air, international rail and maritime crew to allow the free flow of freight.

Travellers from three overseas territories – St Helena, Ascension Island and the Falklands – will be exempt due to lack of testing infrastructure.

Passengers from Antigua and Barbuda, St Lucia and Barbados will be exempt until 4am on January 21, again due to lack of testing infrastructure in those countries.

Mr Courts said: ‘Measures are likely to be in place until the end of the current lockdown, although a review will take place before the end of that period.’

He added: ‘With the addition of pre-departure testing requirements, our already robust system to protect against imported cases of coronavirus is further strengthened and will provide the greatest overall protection against the risk of transmission during travel to England and after arrival.’

A UK Border sign welcomes passengers on arrival at London Heathrow Airport last month

A UK Border sign welcomes passengers on arrival at London Heathrow Airport last month

Other countries in the UK are expected to announce their own plans for pre-arrival testing in the coming days.

How rapid lateral flow tests are different to lab-based PCR swabs

Lateral flow tests are an alternative to the gold standard PCR test – known scientifically as polymerase chain reaction testing – which is more expensive and more labour-intensive but more accurate.

PCR tests also use a swab but this is then processed using high-tech laboratory equipment to analyse the genetic sequence of the sample to see if any of it matches the genes of coronavirus.

This is a much more long-winded and expensive process, involving multiple types of trained staff, and the analysis process can take hours, with the whole process from swab to someone receiving their result taking days.

It is significantly more accurate, however. In ideal conditions the tests are almost 100 per cent accurate at spotting the virus, although this may be more like 70 per cent in the real world.

Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham and lead of the Cochrane Review of Covid-19 diagnostic tests, told Sky News the messaging about the lateral flow tests has ‘not been done well’.

He said: ‘Just before Christmas schools were given a template letter, which had the wording in it, and it went to parents saying ‘This test is as good at detecting cases as the PCR’.

‘Now, frankly, that is completely incorrect, and that is the sort of wrong messaging which we have to make sure the Government doesn’t continue to put forward.

‘This weekend the Business Minister was quoted as saying ‘This will make workplaces completely safe’. It’s not the right way to tell people about this.’

He added: ‘I think there’s an anxiety that if we tell people the truth as to how bad this test is people won’t bother getting it.

‘But we have to do the truth – we can’t tell people that the test is better than it is.’

In Britain, the country’s most senior police officer has warned coronavirus rule-breakers they are ‘increasingly likely’ to face fines as forces move ‘more quickly’ to enforce lockdown restrictions.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said it was ‘preposterous’ that anyone could be unaware of the need to follow the stringent measures designed to curb Covid-19 cases.

Writing in The Times, she said: ‘It is preposterous to me that anyone could be unaware of our duty to do all we can to stop the spread of the virus.

‘We have been clear that those who breach Covid-19 legislation are increasingly likely to face fines.’

However, her comments came as law enforcement sources told the Guardian that police officers would not enforce mask-wearing in supermarkets – despite a Government crackdown on compliance.

Which countries are exceptions to the negative test rule? 

Travellers from three overseas territories – St Helena, Ascension Island and the Falklands – will be exempt due to lack of testing infrastructure.

Passengers from Antigua and Barbuda, St Lucia and Barbados will be exempt until 4am on January 21, again due to lack of testing infrastructure in those countries.

Supermarket chain Morrisons said yesterday that customers who refuse to wear a mask without a medical exemption will be told to leave stores, while Sainsbury’s also said its security staff would ‘challenge’ shoppers who were not wearing masks or entering stores in groups.

Meanwhile, ministers are reported to be mulling over introducing tougher measures in England, with the wearing of face masks outdoors and banning exercise with people not in their household bubble said to be under consideration.

Tory former health minister Steve Brine led calls for an end to non-essential takeaway sales, including coffee, telling BBC Two’s Newsnight: ‘There are so many things that we are doing, which are allowed in the rules… but I just don’t think they are wise right now.’

Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned on Monday that the NHS is under ‘very significant pressure’ and told the public to reduce all social contact that is ‘not absolutely strictly necessary’ in a bid to cut cases.

His warning came as NHS England data showed there were 32,070 Covid-19 patients in English hospitals as of 8am on Monday. The figure is up 20 per cent compared to last week, and up 81 per cent since Christmas Day.

A further 529 people died within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus as of Monday, bringing the UK total to 81,960 – though separate figures show there have now been 97,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.

Tourist trying to get back to Britain is stranded in the Maldives having spent 14 days in isolation after getting Covid on a diving trip

Kathrin Schuler, pictured with her partner Roger Kuhn, is stranded in the Maldives

Kathrin Schuler, pictured with her partner Roger Kuhn, is stranded in the Maldives

A tourist trying to get back to Britain from the Maldives is stranded having already spent 14 days in isolation after getting infected with coronavirus on a diving safari.

Kathrin Schuler, a software engineer for Google in London, had travelled to the country before tier four restrictions came into place.

But due to a positive Covid-19 case on a diving safari, the group all got infected with Covid-19 and had to spend a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a government facility.

Ms Schuler, who is originally from Switzerland but now lives in Canary Wharf, told MailOnline: ‘After completing our 14 days, in line with Maldivian restrictions, we will be allowed to leave and go home.

‘However, it is very unlikely that we will test negative in a new PCR test since Covid-19 cases can test positive for a long time despite no longer being infectious.

‘There is no guidance published yet if our quarantine release paper will be enough to get us home – it is, for example to get back into Dubai, after testing positive so currently, it looks like we will be stuck indefinitely, or until all of us test negative.

‘We are weighing our options. The statutory instrument has not been published yet so we are hoping there will be something in the fine print to allow people who have tested positive and have completed their mandatory quarantine back into the country without a negative PCR test.

‘If that is not the case we are, for better or for worse stuck here until we test negative, which can be months in the worst case. We have reached out to the Department for Transport in the UK but have not heard back as of yet.’

She said one option she was considering was flying to another European country that does not currently require a negative test or lets people in with quarantine letters – and stay there until she tests negative.

Ms Schuler added: ‘This could be an option, considering it might be cheaper than the Maldives and have better infrastructure.

‘However, none of us have packed any warm clothes, plus we would then be subject to that country’s regulations/border closures/quarantine measures/etc.’