The UK government’s test and release scheme which aims to reduce to quarantine from 10 days to around 6 days, got off to a shaky start. Here readers C and D tell of their experience with the test and release system.
What are the current rules about quarantine when returning to England?
These rules are changing all of the time and it is best to always best to check the government’s Coronavirus travel site for the most up to date position. When I was returning to England, if you were travelling from a country on the Travel Corridor list, there was no need to quarantine. If the country you were travelling from was not on the list, then you had to quarantine for 10 days. I was returning from France, so this applied to me. Shortly before I flew to France, the UK Government introduced a new process called “Test to Release” which cuts the 10 day quarantine. NB this is for returns to England only.
How long do you need to quarantine with Test to Release?
The government allows you to pay for a private test after 5 days back in the UK. If this test comes back negative, then you are released from quarantine. Given it takes between 24 and 48 hours to receive your test results, it effectively reduced quarantine from 10 days to 6 or 7.
My experience of the process
I was returning to England on Thursday 17th December, therefore, had I stuck to the standard 10 day quarantine process, I would not have been able to leave my house until Mon 28th December (the clock starts from the day after your return to England). Given that meant no ability to go shopping for my Christmas dinner, I was happy to pay to be released before Christmas.
The government publishes a list of suppliers that you must use to book your test (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-private-providers-of-coronavirus-testing/list-of-private-providers-of-coronavirus-testing). You must also book the test before your return to England, but this cannot be done more than 48 hours before your arrival. When I booked my test, it was the first day that the system was operational and there were teething problems. The list only contained 12 suppliers (there are more now) and it is fair to say, they were all a bit overwhelmed. Some of the websites were just crashing, other companies were not answering their phones and others said they would only respond to emails. I sent off emails to 4 companies and none of them ever responded to me. Through a bit of perseverance, I was able to secure a test through “Screen 4” at their clinic in Fenchurch Street in London. The cost of the test was £120.
You cannot book an appointment sooner than day 5 after your return to England. Day 1 is the first day after your return, therefore, the earliest I could book my test for my arrival into England on 17th Dec was Tuesday 22nd Dec. If you do not want to travel to a clinic, or if you’re unable to travel to one, you can request that the swab kit is sent to your home and you can post it back. However, I thought this might delay the process by a day or 2 given the Christmas post volumes, so I chose to visit the clinic.
The online booking form asked for quite a few details, including my passport details, flight details, etc. I was then sent an email asking me to register and create an online account with them, since this is how they would communicate with me and provide my results. The details of the test had to be entered on to my Passenger Locator Form. On arrival in England, I passed straight through the e-gates at Heathrow and drove to my home in London. As appears to be the experience of most people, I was never contacted to ensure that I was remaining in quarantine.
The day before my appointment was due, Screen4 contacted me to tell me that the location of my test had changed to a clinic on Soho Square. Interestingly, the reason for this was that the landlord in their Fenchurch location refused to give them permission to carry out Covid tests on their premisses. They then moved it to Soho Square. They said that when I arrived outside, I was to text them. It is worth saying that the government specifically permit you to leave your home during quarantine to travel to the clinic to have your test carried out. Given London was already in Tier 4, I was able to drive to Soho Square and park a few meters away from the clinic.
I sent the text to say that I had arrived, but I am not sure what the purpose of the text is, since you just walk in anyway. The receptionist took my details and phoned the “clinic” upstairs. The clinic was more of a general office space than a medical facility. Shortly afterward, someone from the clinic came down and took me upstairs and explained the process, and asked if I had set up my online account. The test was a standard PCR test, with a nasal and throat swab. The samples were then put in a tube, with each tube having a unique reference number on them. The clinic then tells you to put the tube reference number into your online account. I was told that the results could take between 24 and 48 hours to process, but that the lab was generally turning round the results in less than 24 hours. I found the clinic to be well organised and friendly. The only odd thing was that I was offered a sweet from a large bowl that clearly everyone was putting their hands into. Not exactly the best thing to prevent the spread of COVID!
My appointment was at 17:00 and by 20:00 I received a notification that my swab had been received by the lab. At 16:20 the following day (Wednesday 23rd), I received a notification that my result was negative and that I was formally released from quarantine, which also included a PDF of the result. I, therefore, had plenty of time to shop for my Christmas dinner!
Overall, I thought the process was good. I am sure the initial teething problems have now been ironed out. For me, it was definitely worth the £120 to reduce my quarantine time.