UK's 'test to release' Covid scheme for travellers gets off to a chaotic start

The UK government’s long-awaited test to release scheme, designed to allow travellers to cut quarantine, was embroiled in chaos on its first day of operation after the last-minute publication of 11 private providers, most of whom appeared unable to offer the service on Tuesday morning.

Airports, many of which have had testing centres in place for weeks or months, were perplexed at being left off the Department for Transport’s approved list, as they reported a surge in bookings in the run-up to the festive season.

Meanwhile, approved providers advised travellers that tests would have to be posted and results given within 48 hours of receipt – likely cutting the period of self-isolation from 10 days to eight, rather than the five days the scheme promised.

The DfT was understood to be attempting to speed through approval of airport testing centres on Tuesday to rectify the lack of availability.

One airport source said: “The rapid test is not yet approved, but would cut self-isolation to five days – that’s what we hoped would be the situation from today. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t even managed to get a list who could do it in eight days. Given the small numbers of passengers travelling now, you’ve got to question the procurement.”

Among the 11 companies published at 7.11pm on the eve of the scheme, SameDay Doctor said it had been overwhelmed and could no longer take bookings or respond to emails. Another, Halo Verify, said test kits were out of stock. Some other providers’ websites appeared to have crashed on Tuesday.

The test to release scheme was first announced by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, in October, when a taskforce was set up to address the concerns of the travel industry and attempt to cut the then 14-day quarantine period.

Michael Smith, a UK citizen residing in the Netherlands, arrived in England on Monday via Eurotunnel after testing negative two days earlier, hoping to take advantage of the new regime to visit his mother, who has dementia.

Instead, he found himself waiting to discover the identity of approved providers – and then unable to book a test after contacting them all.

“It looks like a fiasco,” Smith said. “I’m stuck in a Travelodge near London. I thought five days, and I’ll be out. But of these providers, most are not ready, and they are all by post – it’s going to be almost 10 days anyway.”

He said he was furious with the government for announcing a scheme that was “just hot air”.

Heathrow said its test providers were working closely with the DfT to ensure they were granted government approval at the earliest opportunity.

A spokesperson for MAG, which owns Manchester, Stansted and East Midlands airports, described the delays to its testing centres as frustrating, saying it had “a provider with global expertise, and the capability to offer the widest possible choice of tests to travellers”.

He said the provider, Collinson, had supplied all the necessary information to government and been offering the tests for passengers to satisfy the entry requirements of countries worldwide since the start of the month. He added: “We have been assured the matter will be resolved imminently.”

Gatwick airport said it hoped its own test centre would be approved within days – and said that the new system appeared to have given passengers more confidence in flying, with a rush of additional bookings for Christmas – including to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, which was recently removed from the government’s travel corridor list of countries exempted from quarantine.

Up to 200 flights a day are forecast in December at the airport – 30% of pre-Covid levels but far more than have operated in recent months.

The DfT has yet to respond to requests for comment.