[Updated] The UK Will Require Pre-Departure COVID Testing from Monday


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Last week the British government indicated that it would be bringing in rules to require all travelers wishing to enter England to provide proof of a negative COVID test before departure. Earlier this week the government announced that pre-departure tests would be required from Friday, 15 January. Now, that timeline has been pushed back.

The Timing

In a written statement to parliament, the UK’s Department for Transport stated announced that pre-departure testing for traveler wishing to enter England* would be introduced this coming Friday, 15 January but, because this government is remarkably inept, it wasn’t able to tell travelers exactly what tests would be accepted as proof that they were safe to travel until late yesterday – less than 48 hours before the rules were meant to come into force.

This isn’t the first time the UK government has made an announcement without having all details of its proposal ready to be examined (it couldn’t give us the rules surrounding quarantine exemptions when it announced those back in December) and this time its embarrassing incompetence has meant that the date for the introduction of mandatory pre-departure COVID testing has been pushed back to Monday, 18 January 2021.

The New Rules

From 18 January 2021, pre-departure testing will be mandatory for inbound passengers to the United Kingdom (the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed along with England), and passengers arriving by ship, plane, or train will have to take a test up to 3 days before departure and provide evidence of a negative result before they travel.

Passengers traveling to England from the Common Travel Area (the United Kingdom, Ireland, Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey), will not fall within the scope of the new rules.

Prior to departure, travelers will be required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test to their carrier, as well as recording details of their test on England’s passenger locator form. Airlines, train operators, and all other carriers will be required to deny boarding to anyone commencing travel to the UK without a negative COVID test unless they fall into an exempt category.

It’s very important to note that a negative COVID test is not a pass to avoid England’s quarantine rules and, to that end, the government has confirmed the following:

  • Evidence of a negative COVID test will be required even if a traveler is arriving from a country that is on England’s travel corridor list.
  • Passengers arriving into England from a country not on the travel corridor list will continue to have self-isolate for 10 days even if they provided evidence of a negative COVID before they departed their country of origin.
  • Passengers arriving into England who have provided evidence of a negative result prior to departure from a country not on the travel corridor list will continue to have the option to reduce the self-isolation period from 10 to as little as 5 days by paying for a test through the Test to Release scheme.

The government has also said that the UK Border Force will conduct spot checks on arrival into England to ensure that passengers are fully compliant. Anyone caught breaking the rules will be subject to an immediate fine of £500 (~$675).

Accepted Tests

At the time of writing, this is the wording surrounding testing on the UK Government’s official page:

The test must:

  • meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml
  • this could include tests such as:
    • a nucleic acid test, including a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or derivative technologies, including loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) tests
    • an antigen test, such as a test from a lateral flow device
      It is your responsibility to ensure the test meets the minimum standards for sensitivity, specificity and viral load details so you must check with your test provider that it meets those standards.

Per the UK Government, the test results must be in English, French, or Spanish and translations from other languages will not be accepted. An original test result certificate will be the only proof that is accepted (although, as well as a physical printed document, an email, or text message containing the certificate will also be accepted) and the certificate will be expected to include the following information:

  • The traveler’s name (which should match the name on the traveler’s ID)
  • The traveler’s date of birth or age
  • The result of the test
  • The date the test sample was collected or received by the test provider
  • The name of the test provider and their contact details
  • The name of the test device

Here’s an example of a test certificate that shows all the required information (this is from the test I took at the Sofitel London Heathrow T5):

If the test result does not include all the required information, the UK government says that a traveler may not be able to board, and may not be able to travel to England.

Be warned: Anyone who does not have a valid exemption and who arrives in the UK without a test result that includes the information outlined above will be committing a criminal offense and could receive a £500 fine.

Exempt Categories

The following are exempt from the new pre-departure testing rules:

  • Children under the age of 11
  • Border and customs officials
  • Hauliers
  • Air, international rail, and maritime crew
  • Channel tunnel system workers
  • Civil aviation inspectors
  • People transporting human cells and blood products
  • Seamen and masters and inspectors and surveyors of ships
  • Specialist technical workers doing emergency works
  • Arrivals from:
    • Antigua and Barbuda – until 04:00 Thursday 21 January 2021
    • St Lucia – until 04:00 Thursday 21 January 2021
    • Barbados – until 04:00 Thursday 21 January 2021
  • Arrivals from St Helena, Ascension Island, and the Falkland Islands
  • Passengers traveling for urgent medical treatment or are accompanying someone who is traveling for urgent medical treatment, and for whom it is not reasonably practicable to obtain a negative COVID-19 test in the 3 days before departure
  • Passengers who have a medical condition which means they cannot take a test (these passengers must present a covering note from a medical practitioner at check-in and to Border Force staff on arrival in England)

In limited circumstances, people falling into the following categories may be exempt:

  • Defense personnel, visiting forces, and government contractors
  • Foreign government officials
  • UK government officials conducting essential state business, essential government work, or essential policing.

Note: British nationals returning home are not exempt and must be able to provide evidence of a negative COVID test taken no more than 72 hours before departure before they will be allowed to travel.

Bottom Line

If you’re visiting or returning to England after 04:00 on Monday 18 January 2021, you will have to show evidence of a negative COVID test before you travel unless you fall into one of the exempt categories. If you’re returning to one of the other countries in the United Kingdom, the same will be true.

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