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Travel: What is a PCR test and how can you book one?

Do you know what different Covid tests are available? (Picture: Getty)

As England’s travel traffic light system is set to come into play on May 17, many people across the country are eager to book themselves on the summer holiday they have been craving.

If you have Covid-19 symptoms and want to get tested, the NHS’s free tests are the place to start.

However, if you’re hoping to travel to – or from – the UK, there are some vital details you’ll need to be able to board a plane.

So what are the different types of tests, can you use NHS tests to travel and what countries require a test according to the traffic light system?

What is a Covid PCR test?

A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test looks for the genetic information (RNA) of the virus on a swab, usually taken from the throat and nose.

Have you had a Covid test before? (Picture: Getty)

When the swab reaches the lab, scientists add a solution to it. If the virus is present, the solution will create copies of the genetic material, allowing it to be detected and analysed.

These tests have been the standard ones used by the UK government throughout the coronavirus pandemic – whether via an at-home kit or at a testing centre.

The government kits should only be used if you have coronavirus symptoms, which include a persistent cough, fever, or high temperature.

How to book a Covid PCR test

If you’re in the UK and you want to book a PCR test for travel, they are available from various private providers.

To find one near you, use this government-approved directory to find the details of a safe and accredited local test centre.

If you’re travelling to the UK from a different country, it’s important to find a test centre in that country that is compatible with government testing regulations. A full list of guidelines can be found on gov.uk.

A private PCR test is needed before travel to the UK (Picture: Getty)

Can you use an NHS test to travel?

If you take the test in the UK ahead of a return journey in three days, you must use a private provider rather than the NHS testing service.

If you have Covid-19 symptoms, NHS testing can be accessed as normal – but (assuming the test is negative) you will need to take a private test alongside it to enable you to travel, a government spokesperson confirmed.

The NHS app will start to be used as a vaccine certificate for travelling from May 17, with a paper option available for those without a smartphone.

NHS app to be used to give Covid vaccine status

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Which countries require a PCR test to enter?

Countries are set to be divided into green, amber, and red lists when the travel traffic light system comes into effect May 17.

Travellers will still need to take a test up to 72 hours before departure, and this will apply irrespective of which list the country falls into.

What you have to do upon your return to the UK is very different depending on where the country lies in the traffic light system.

Grant Shapps sets out traffic light system for international travel from May 17

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What are the travel testing rules for green list countries?

Those travelling to destinations on the green list from England will not need to isolate on their return, but they will need to take a Covid-19 test before and after their trip.

Countries on the green list include Portugal, Australia and Israel – you can find a whole list of green list countries here.

However, only Portugal – including the Azores and Madeira – and Gibraltar will be open to tourists without the need to quarantine, as many countries will still have their own restrictions in place for arrivals.

What are the travel testing rules for amber list countries?

An aerial view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on a sunny day.

Popular destination France will be on the amber list (Picture: Getty)

If you’re returning from an amber country, you must self-isolate for 10 days, unless you receive a negative result from a test taken at least five days after arrival.

You’ll also have to take a pre-departure test, and PCR tests on both day two and day eight of your arrival in the UK – you are responsible for ordering and paying for these tests ahead of time, and they are called Travel Test packages.

Countries on the amber list includes popular destinations such as the Bahamas, Greece, Italy, Thailand, Barbados, France, the United States, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.

What are the travel testing rules for red list countries?

An aerial view of the city of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

Brazil is one of the countries set to be on the red list from May 17 (Picture: Getty)

Travel to and from red list countries is illegal unless you have been legally permitted to do so – you’ll have to complete a declaration form for international travel to see if your reason for travel is deemed appropriate.

Red list countries have the strictest rules, with only UK or Irish nationals and UK residents allowed to return to the UK from red-listed countries.

The countries on the red list include popular holiday destinations such as Turkey, the Maldives, Seychelles, South Africa, and Brazil.

If you are travelling from a red list country back to the UK, you must first:

On arrival in the UK, you must then quarantine in a managed hotel for ten days.

You are responsible for booking and paying for your stay at a quarantine hotel, which will include the tests to take on day two and day eight of your quarantine.

You cannot leave quarantine until you have a negative result for your two Covid tests.

For more information on quarantine hotels, head to gov.uk.

What is a lateral flow test?

Coronavirus Home Test

There’s an even speedier test than the PCR (Picture: Getty)

Lateral flow tests are the speedier cousin of the PCR. They check for the presence of a specific biological marker and can give results in around 30 minutes.

There doesn’t need to be technical training to administer a test, and they are much cheaper than PCR tests, and have been put to use in workplaces and schools.

Also known as rapid testing, everyone in England is now able to access free, regular, rapid Covid-19 tests for themselves and their families to use twice a week – you can order yours from gov.uk now.

MORE: Portugal flight prices double as bookings surge after green list unveiled

MORE: NHS app to be used as vaccine passport for holidays from May 17

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