Earlier this month, the Department for Transport announced that from 24 October onwards, fully vaccinated travellers can use lateral flow tests (also known as antigen tests) as their day two test once in the UK.
This test should be taken within the first two days after arriving in the country.
The change also applies to most under-18s from countries that are not on the red list.
As such, lateral flow tests are available to order online, as of Friday 22 October.
Several countries countries also allow an antigen test result as part of their entry requirements, so the newly-vetted private lateral flow tests could also be used for this function.
However, this varies from destination to destination, so please check individual travel advice for each trip to ensure an antigen test is appropriate.
But how does the new travel testing system work, and what does this mean for unvaccinated passengers?
Where can I buy lateral flow tests?
As with the previously compulsory PCR tests, the UK government has created a web page with information on lateral flow tests and an approved list of test providers.
You enter your vaccination status and trip details before being taken to a list of dozens of UK providers you can order a test kit from.
You don’t legally have to order a test kit from one of these providers - the list exists to prove some sort of government regulation of this growing market, but as with the PCR test system, all you need is a lateral flow test booking or postal kit that provides you with a booking reference.
The government still emphasising that travellers should not use the NHS’s free tests for day two purposes - not to mention that day two tests need to be officially recorded as negative.
One thing to note is that, as of 22 October, Wales has not finalised whether it will follow England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the switch to lateral flow tests. It is likely they will, and it is unclear how the country would enforce any other decision, but do check the Welsh government’s website for updates if you are based in Wales.
How much do lateral flow tests cost?
The approved list has test kits available from as little as £1 - music to the ears of anyone who has paid between £40 and £120 for a PCR test around trips in 2021 - and £99.
Familiar brands from the PCR-testing era such as Randox and Collinson have tests for £20-30.
However, the real bargain-basement prices always have many strings attached: in the case of the £1.49-advertised Hasu Diagnostics, click through to the website and you’ll quickly see an actual starting price of £30 for a lateral flow test sent in the post.
On closer inspection, the sub-£1.50 offer is based on the traveller being able to collect the kit from a medical centre in Slough four to six weeks before their intended date of return, return the sample personally to the same site within the two day window after travel, and provide passport and proof of travel. They do promise a next-day result, though.
How do I take the test and send off my sample?
As with PCR tests, you will need a booking reference for your antigen test for track and trace purposes, and will have to take a photo of both that reference number and the physical test result to send to the test provider as proof.
“Passengers will need to take a photo of their lateral flow test and booking reference supplied by the private provider and send it back to them to verify the result,” reads the official statement from the Department for Transport.
There is also the option to book a test in the airport you’re arriving into, which could be more straightforward than using an in-person or postal-kit provider from the government list.
Day two tests can be taken anytime within the first two days after arrival, rather than on day two itself; in fact, UK government advice is that the test should be taken “as soon as possible” after landing.
Responding to questions around the security of allowing people to send a photo of a lateral flow test and worries about people cheating the system, transport secretary Grant Shapps has said the system is “based on trust”, adding: “In this world nothing is 100%, and until now we haven’t been requiring any verification.
“Of course, the system requires people to be honest, like so many laws in this country.”
If you test positive on your lateral flow day two test, you must order a free confirmatory PCR test from the NHS, in order to double check and alert Track and Trace.
Which tests do vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers have to take?
At present, fully vaccinated travellers arriving into the UK only have to take one test - the “day two” - within the two days after arrival.
Unvaccinated people or those who have had just one dose of the vaccine must self-isolate for 10 days after arriving, as well as ordering two travel tests - a day two and a day eight test - to be taken within that time period, which must be PCR tests.
These test kits tend to cost between £45 and £120.
Those wishing to escape quarantine slightly earlier can also pay extra for a third PCR test for day five, also known as “Test to Release”. If the results for that come back negative, you are released from self-isolation from that point.
In terms of whether an under-18-year-old is deemed vaccinated, it’s a slightly confusing rule: only under-18s who usually live in the UK or countries whose vaccines are recognised by the UK (including the Netherlands, UAE and South Africa) are able to switch to lateral flow tests.
If you are an 18-year-old who lives outside of the UK or those countries, you still need to take PCR tests for any required tests around travel.