UK Government’s Quarantine Shortening Scheme Fails On First Day

For many travelers, the UK government’s Test To Release plan was going to make the difference between spending Christmas Day with their families or not. Incoming passengers should, from today, have been able to reduce quarantine requirements from 10 days to just five on production of a negative COVID test on the fifth day. However, the scheme has collapsed into chaos, with no providers seemingly able to fulfill the demand and some pulling out of the scheme altogether.

British Airways 777
Passengers arriving into the UK today are struggling to avail of the Test To Release scheme. Photo: Getty Images

Chaos on day one

The UK government’s plan to shorten the time incoming passengers must spend in quarantine has collapsed into chaos on its first day. Known as ‘Test To Release’, the plan was introduced to reduce the time required in quarantine from 10 days to just five, pending a negative COVID-19 test.

However, poor handling of the procedural side of the process has left many travelers in a state of confusion, with many unable to book the required COVID test. For those companies providing the test, the situation is worse. Some have already been asking to be removed from the list of ‘approved providers’ due to the complete chaos they’ve been confronted with.

London Heathrow Airport, COVID-19 tests, Departing passengers
A negative COVID test on day five can release the passenger from quaratine. Photo: Heathrow Airport

For Britons overseas and people hoping to come to the UK to visit family for Christmas, the Test To Release scheme had promised so much hope. With 10 days to go until Christmas, for those unable to secure a COVID test with results in the next five days, all hopes of spending Christmas Day with loved ones is rapidly disappearing. So what went wrong with ‘test to release’?

What went wrong?

The Test To Release scheme promised much to both airlines and passengers over the festive period. Announced at the end of November, its introduction on December 15th meant people could fly back to the UK and be out of quarantine in time for the festive period. At the time of the announcement, the UK government noted that only a specific set of test providers would be allowed to conduct the tests. That list of providers would be announced shortly before the scheme started.

Shortly turned out to be the operative word here. With hours to go before the scheme launched, the UK government finally published its list of providers at around 20:00 last night. And it wasn’t a very long list.

UK Government’s Quarantine Shortening Scheme Fails On First Day
Just 11 providers made up the entirety of the list. Photo: UK Gov

A whole 11 providers made up the entirety of the list, which already suggested that demand would far outweigh supply. With only hours left to book the test, one can only imagine the frantic emailing and phoning around that went on yesterday evening.

But it gets better

So shambolic was the implementation of Test To Release, providers were absolutely overwhelmed by the response. Dr Laurence Gerlis, who runs SameDayDoctor, told the Independent,

“This has been a nightmare … I spent all weekend getting the paperwork together to apply to be a laboratory even though I am CQC-registered as a clinic. I am not sure the demand for this testing was estimated properly. Many people waited for a long time for the list to be published and it went crazy yesterday.

“I have 800 emails now to look at this morning.  And 1,000 yesterday.”

The situation was so dire that by 01:00 in the morning, SameDayDoctor had published a notice stating that it was unable to participate in Test To Release and that it had asked to be removed from the list.

Can anyone get a test in time?

According to one of the UK’s foremost travel experts, Paul Charles of the PC Agency, the answer is likely no. Of the 11 providers who have been approved by the government under Test To Release, most are unable to provide a test in time.

One traveler reports successfully finding availability at a London-based clinic, The London General Practice. However, he says that the testing here costs £295 for a quick turnaround to meet Test To Release, a huge step up from the already eye-watering costs of the other approved testers (typically £80 – £130 per person). Paul Charles reports that even this provider’s website has now crashed.

The latest update from Charles suggests that two providers have now been switched into the list on the government website. However, clicking through shows that, for both providers, their websites are not working properly, and test bookings are unable to be made.

Paul Charles told Simple Flying,

“It’s a chaotic start for a system that was flagged as a solution to travel recovery. It has been weeks in planning yet has taken just minutes to fall apart. This is not the way for governments to instil confidence in consumers and help them travel seamlessly. I think most people will simply not pay for a test now, partly because they can’t book one, and opt to spend a few more days in quarantine – precisely the opposite of what the government envisaged.

“I cannot fathom why government won’t consult the sector intensively so as to help it put systems in place which boost travel recovery, rather than damage it.”

What does this mean for airlines?

For the airlines flying people into the UK, this is yet another nail in the coffin of what will go down as the worst year in aviation history. With passengers unable to get a Test To Release COVID test in place, many may well give up on coming home for Christmas altogether.

It’s a headache airlines don’t need right now. Photo: Getty Images

A flurry of cancelations, refund requests and flight changes is not what airlines need when they are already short-staffed. Many are still dealing with the backlog of refund requests from the lockdown earlier in the year, and this added burden of passenger uncertainty is not the way they’d hoped to finish the year.

The UK government’s poor handling of Test To Release has made a joke of what could have been a very good solution to safe travel over Christmas. For passengers, it will be a big disappointment. For airlines, it could be a Christmas disaster.