Taking a Covid PCR test after returning to the UK from most foreign destinations has become mandatory. The added cost of testing is making holidays unviable and the travel industry is urging the government to ditch the requirement. But the cost of tests in the UK is far higher than many countries in Europe. Here’s what you need to know. 

What are PCR tests?

There are three different types of Covid tests: polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, lateral flow tests (LFTs) and antibody (or serology) tests.

PCR tests are used to directly screen for the presence of viral RNA, which will be detectable in the body before antibodies form or symptoms of the disease are present. This means the tests can tell if someone has Covid very early on in their illness.

These types of Covid tests need to be sent away to a laboratory for analysis, meaning it can take days for people to find out their results.

Why would I need a PCR test?

Travellers flying out of the UK for a holiday will need evidence of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours for almost all countries. Travellers usually have to provide proof of this test when they depart the UK and when they land.

How much do PCR tests in the UK cost?

The NHS offers free PCR tests for limited circumstances, such as government pilot projects, but you cannot use them for leisure travel.

The cost of private tests varies wildly. Some travel companies, such as Tui, are offering cheap PCR Covid tests for its customers travelling to destinations on the government’s “green list” from as little as £20. The £20 Tui kit contains one pre-departure lateral flow test and one inbound PCR test for day two.

On the high street, most tests cost around £100. Boots charges £65 for an at-home PCR self-test package or £99 for the in-store equivalent. Superdrug charges £119 per person for its at-home testing kit.

Most private clinics charge around £200 for the tests, but the most expensive private service on the government’s “find a travel test provider” list charges £575 for an on-site test kit for those travelling to “amber list” countries. This includes a home test package for day two and day eight after the customer has returned to the UK.

What about in other countries?

The European Commission has urged all members to offer tests free of charge.

In France, PCR tests are free for citizens to help its tourism industry, while Greece and Italy have put a cap of €40 (£34) and €60 (£52) respectively on PCR tests for travel.

Recent analysis by Abta and the Airport Operators Association revealed that, on average, in the UK a pre-departure PCR test costs £128 and that in eight European destinations, the average cost for a pre-departure PCR test is just £62. 

Why does PCR testing in the UK cost so much more?

The Independent spoke to several UK clinics that offer PCR testing, many of which cited the fees for Ukas (the United Kingdom Accreditation Service) registration, staffing costs and lab fees as the reason for the elevated cost of PCR testing in the UK.

However, the newspaper’s investigation concluded that although the jury is out on who is to blame for the high cost of the UK’s PCR tests, “both the test and process will almost always be the same whether you pay £60 or £160″.

Aviation analyst Alex Macheras claimed that UK customers are being “exploited” by private companies. He told MailOnline: “Many European countries offer pre-flight tests for free. Instead, here we’re being forced to pay extortionate prices.” 

Mark Tanzer, chief executive of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), was also sceptical of the varying cost of PCR tests in the UK, telling the BBC: “I can’t see anything in the UK that is different about PCR that means it is more expensive there than elsewhere”.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Covid has called on the government to make PCR testing cheaper to help to protect the UK against Covid variants. They suggested the cost of PCR tests could be lowered by VAT exemptions or price caps.