Coronavirus cases could be missed at Britain’s border following the government’s decision to let travellers choose ‘less accurate’ lateral flow tests to prove they’re Covid-free, scientists have warned.
Those arriving in the UK will be able to present negative PCR or lateral flow Covid tests as proof that they do not have coronavirus.
Grant Shapps has said nobody will be able to depart for Britain by plane, train or ferry unless they present a ‘recognised’ test result at check-in along with a valid passport and visa if required. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also adopt the measure.
PCR tests can take longer because they are sent off to a lab to check for Covid, with some critics saying 72 hours could be too tight. Rapid ‘lateral flow’ tests can be turned around in minutes, but missed cases and false positives are more common.
The difference has sparked concerns that Covid-positive travellers could present a negative test at the border to gain entry to Britain.
Professor Jon Deeks, a testing expert at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘The lateral flow test, we know, is not very sensitive so it will miss cases and it isn’t suitable.’
He added: ‘Other countries are using PCR and I would be concerned if we didn’t. There are alternatives, but we need something with similar accuracy to PCR.’
Dr Alex Edwards, a pharmacy researcher at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘Given that this is a screening programme particularly for asymptomatic people, you want the most sensitive tests available, and PCR tests are the most sensitive available.
‘But even different manufacturers have varying levels of accuracy and not everyone is positive if they’re infected, which can cause enormous problems.
‘I think the problem is that, in general, the lateral flow tests are almost always less sensitive. If you have a really good PCR tests you might catch 80 per cent of people so you can reduce the number cases coming in five-fold.
‘We’ve seen huge variations in accuracy [of lateral flow]. Accuracy is always compared to PCR and when they were used in the real world, for example the study in Liverpool, it showed it was only capable of picking up half of the PCR cases, and that’s half of 80 per cent, so you can’t even reduce the number of people coming in by two-fold.’
Dr Edwards added that using lateral flow tests would prevent scientists from being able to detect or monitor new strains being brought into the country from abroad.
The negative Covid test for all travellers to the UK will be imposed ‘next Wednesday or Thursday’ as stars including Amanda Holden slammed the Government’s plan as too little too late as mutant strains from countries like South Africa entered the country.
The controversial testing regime was announced, as:
- Boris Johnson promises 200,000 vaccine doses a day by next FRIDAY with Army running jab drive – as Britain records 1,162 Covid deaths in second worst day ever of pandemic;
- The PM slammed Covid deniers and told them to ‘grow up’ while NHS boss Sir Simon Stevens slammed their ‘lies’ about hospitals being empty;
- Three people have been charged with assaulting Scottish police after officers entered a family’s home because they were told there were ‘too many people inside’;
Passengers queue up at a Covid-19 Testing Centre at London Heathrow as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan declares a Major Incident as cases continue to spread throughout the capital
Those arriving in the UK will be able to present negative PCR or lateral flow Covid tests as proof that they do not have coronavirus (pictured: January 8, Heathrow)
Travellers will be banned from entering the UK next week if they do not have a negative test within 72 hours of departure. Pictured: Heathrow
Seething: Amanda Holden shared bikini snap on Instagram on Friday as she slammed government’s ‘delayed’ decision to test people coming into UK for COVID
Not impressed: Amanda shared this lengthy post along her swimwear snap
In disbelief: So it comes as no surprise that she commented on Amanda’s post as she expressed her own disappointment. Other stars also agreed with her rant
There are concerns in the travel industry some will be stuck on holiday because many destinations do not have facilities for carrying out tests. Pictured: A man being tested at Heathrow
It is expected to cause a scramble for return flights as around 100,000 Brits are currently away in hotspots such as Dubai and the Maldives. Pictured: Heathrow last month
Christopher Mardon, a lorry driver travelling to Caen, France via Portsmouth, receives a COVID test at the new haulier testing site at Sutton Scotney services. Hauliers will be exampt coming the other way
PCR vs lateral flow Covid tests: Grant Shapps hints both will be allowed as proof of a negative result
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PCR TEST AND A LATERAL FLOW?
A PCR test can cost upwards of £180 per person, with the swab needing to be processed in a lab.
The UK, on the other hand, favours faster tests which are not lab based and give a result within 15 minutes.
These rapid coronavirus tests, known as lateral flow tests, are ones that can be done on the spot using portable equipment.
They are faster and cheaper than lab-based PCR tests, which the government uses to diagnose people, but are less accurate.
LATERAL FLOW TESTS ARE RAPID – BUT CAN SACRIFICE ACCURACY
In a lateral flow test a swab is used to get a sample from the person’s nose or throat and it is then processed in a small machine that tries to detect the coronavirus by mixing the sample with something the virus would react with.
If there is a reaction in the mixture it suggests that the person is carrying coronavirus. If not, they get a negative result. This process can be completed in as little as 15 minutes.
You take your own swab though a professional on site processes it through the machine.
Lateral flow miss up to half of cases, by the Department of Health’s own admission.
But damning evidence shows they may be effectively useless when self-administered, despite Downing Street’s current testing scheme relying on people taking their own swabs.
The tests are more accurate when swabs are carried out by trained professionals because they have to be pushed deep inside the nose.
But scientists fear Britain simply doesn’t have the money or enough spare medics to do this nationwide every day, with health chiefs instead accepting DIY swabs to save time.
PCR TESTS CAN TAKE SEVERAL DAYS TO GET RESULTS – BUT ARE MORE ACCURATE
These lateral flow tests differ from the gold standard PCR test – known scientifically as polymerase chain reaction testing.
PCR tests also use a swab but this is then processed using high-tech laboratory equipment to analyse the genetic sequence of the sample to see if any of it matches the genes of coronavirus.
This is a much more long-winded and expensive process, involving multiple types of trained staff, and the analysis process can take hours, with the whole process from swab to someone receiving their result taking days.
It is significantly more accurate, however. In ideal conditions the tests are almost 100 per cent accurate at spotting the virus, although this may be more like 70 per cent in the real world.
This compares to a much lower sensitivity in lateral flow tests, with a trial of one type used in Liverpool suggesting they miss around 50 per cent of the people who would test positive with PCR.
SO, WHAT IS THE BENEFIT OF LATERAL FLOW TESTING?
Extreme accuracy may be a drawback for PCR now that so many people have been infected, however, with the tests able to detect shreds of the virus in people who recovered weeks ago and are no longer infectious, which may lead them to have to self-isolate unnecessarily.
Lateral flow tests are more likely to miss people who are carrying the virus but, experts say, do have value as a way of weeding out people carrying large amounts of the virus and therefore most likely to be spreading the disease.
Mr Shapps told the BBC: ‘They can be different types of tests – your viewers will have heard of PCR tests perhaps, but there are also lateral flow tests and lab tests.
‘The important thing is that it is up to a certain specification. Then people take that test and as long as it is negative, then they can fly. But they can’t board the plan for example without having that negative test.’
The Transport Secretary’s diktat forcing travellers to present a negative covid test before travelling to the UK will ground almost all flights to and from Britain until the summer and further lay waste to the aviation industry, Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary warned today.
The outspoken Irish billionaire said Mr Shapps’ management of the coronavirus crisis has been ‘shambolic’ and believes the policy is tacit confirmation the Prime Minister is lying to the British people about how quickly Britons will be vaccinated.
Mr O’Leary said: ‘This is more mismanagement by Grant Shapps. This new rule is going to ground almost all flights to and from the UK. Nobody is going to make any bookings because you cannot book with any certainty. The other problem we have is there is no end date. Boris Johnson is going around saying he’ll have all the four main risk groups vaccinated by mid-February – so why aren’t they ending this rule then. Otherwise Boris Johnson is lying to the UK or Grant Shapps is’.
Businesss leaders also believe the plan will further damage Britain’s travel industry with boss of Heathrow, John Holland-Kaye, warning: ‘Very few people will travel with this in place’.
Amanda Holden has today slammed the policy after cancelling her family’s holiday on Boxing Day because of Tier 4 regulations. Sharing a beach bikini picture on Instagram the star slammed a ‘senseless year of neglect of Government rules at our borders’ and the ‘lack of common sense’ by ministers.
She said: ‘Other countries have done it before us. Why has it taken us so long? No one seems to have an answer… or be questioning it?!! Surely this could have prevented the increase of the spread?!!!’ Fellow star Jessica Wright replied saying: ‘Cancelled mine too for Boxing Day & couldn’t agree more, in disbelief over it all’ while actress Tracy Ann Oberman also backed her rant with some clapping emojis.
MailOnline readers also have concerns about the policy stranding them and loved-ones abroad.
Peter Higgins said: ‘My son is currently overseas and is in isolation after having contracted Covid-19. Scientific knowledge is that it is highly unlikely that he will be unable to provide a negative test for some time. This will result in his being denied entry following his isolation period, despite being Covid-19 free’.
David Peacock told MailOnline: ‘I am employed in the Merchant Navy and due to pay off in Antigua between the 15th and 22nd of January. Obviously this all depends on my relief being able to get here and availability of testing facilities either here or somewhere in transit’.
The new policy is expected to cause a scramble for return flights as around 100,000 Brits are currently away in hotspots such as Dubai, the Caribbean and the Maldives.
Ministers agreed the strict measures last night amid growing pressure to tighten borders – but have not confirmed a start date, although it is expected to be next week. They will apply to Britons and foreign nationals in a bid to keep out infections and mutant strains such as the one in South Africa.
Travellers will still have to quarantine for ten days – even if they test negative – if arriving from a ‘red list’ country with high rates of Covid-19. But they will be able to leave isolation if a second test, which can be taken from the fifth day, is negative.
Mr Shapps said that airlines or other travel firms such as Eurostar or P&O would be forced by law to check – and turn back anyone without one. Anyone who slips through will face a £500 on-the-spot fine. It is not clear whether they will then forced into quarantine or prosecuted. He said the new rules will be imposed in five or six days time to avoid a scramble to get back from abroad.
‘The carriers, airlines, train operators or a ferry, would be required by law to check for a test result in the same way they check you have a passport or if you are going to the States you have a visa or a visa waiver,’ he told Sky News. ‘They will need to check whether you have a coronavirus test valid within the 72 hours before you fly. We hope that soon most people will be vaccinated so this is not something we will want to do permanently’.
Britons may be stranded abroad as ministers say travellers will be banned from entering the UK within days if they do not have proof they are clear of coronavirus.
Passengers on planes, boats or trains will be banned from entering the UK next week if they do not have a negative test within 72 hours of departure.
But there are concerns in the travel industry some will be stuck on holiday because many destinations – such as in the Caribbean – do not have testing facilities.
Every traveller coming into UK ports or airports should have a pre-flight negative test to enter or will face a £500 on-the-spot fine. It is not clear whether they will then forced into quarantine.
Heathrow Airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said that as coronavirus vaccines are rolled out in the UK and other countries, flights would return and passenger numbers would start ‘building up’ through the summer and into the autumn.
WHICH LATERAL FLOW TESTS DOES THE UK GOVERNMENT USE?
There are currently three lateral flow test devices on the Government’s approved list.
SD Biosensor Standard Q Antigen Test
Manufacturer: SD Biosensor
When tested: August
Claimed accuracy: 95.5%
Real-world accuracy: Thought to be around 70% – source
SD Biosensor’s rapid coronavirus test
Innova Tried & Tested Antigen Test
Manufacturer: Innova Tried & Tested
When tested: August
Claimed accuracy: 99%
Real-world accuracy: ‘At least 50 per cent’, according to Dept Health
Price: £8.69 per test (bulk order)
Innova’s rapid coronavirus test
Healgen Rapid Covid-19 Antigen Test
When tested: September
Claimed accuracy: 97.3%
Real-world accuracy: Unknown
Healgen’s rapid coronavirus test
But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘That’s an awful long time for the aviation sector to survive and we need to see some support from the Government for the airport sector.
‘Already we’re seeing some airports closing.
‘Newquay has closed temporarily. Stansted has closed for half of the day. And we’re likely to see more of this unless the Government takes steps to protect it.’
He said Heathrow had been calling for business rates relief for airports as has been provided to the retail sector.
Mr Holland-Kaye added: ‘We pay £120 million a year at Heathrow alone and that’s a fixed cost that we just have not been able to reduce at a time when we’ve been cutting our costs in all other areas.’
Airlines and other carriers should bar people from travelling without them but Border Force guards will carry out spot checks on arrivals.
However, the travel industry raised fears some Britons could be stranded as countries such as popular destinations in the Caribbean do not have the resources.
One holidaymaker on a Caribbean island told the Times there was ‘zero chance’ they could be tested before their flight to the UK tomorrow.
All travellers will require a ‘passenger locator form’ and face a £500 fine if they fail to comply.
Children under 11 will be exempt as will hauliers.
Hauliers crossing the Channel to France will also still need a negative test before departure following a decision by the French government on Thursday.
Some people will also dodge the new rules if they are coming from ‘countries without the infrastructure available to deliver the tests’.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘With new strains of the virus developing internationally we must take further precautions.
‘Taken together with the existing mandatory self-isolation period for passengers returning from high-risk countries, pre-departure tests will provide a further line of defence.’
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said he ‘strongly supports’ the measures being in place once Wales begins welcoming international travellers again.
Mr Shapps said the new rules became a ‘much more urgent’ requirement due to the spread of new coronavirus strains.
He told Sky News: ‘This is an extra check and we’re doing this now because there are these variants that we’re very keen to keep out of the country, like the South African variant, for example.
‘There are the concerns about the South African one in particular about how effective the vaccine would be against it so we simply cannot take chances.’
He also defended the Government against allegations it should have moved sooner to close the border during the pandemic, arguing the UK as an island needed the movement of goods and people.
‘Look what happened in the United States, for example, where they did last March entirely closed the border,’ he said. ‘It hasn’t helped them at all, not one iota.’
Labour MP and Commons Home Affairs Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper said there are still ‘many gaps’ in the UK’s approach.
‘Currently the UK still has no testing on arrival and very patchy self-isolation arrangements for arriving travellers, in contrast to the strong arrival testing and quarantine arrangements that other countries have,’ she said.
She urged ministers not to ‘make the same mistakes again’ on preventing coronavirus cases from arriving from overseas, saying border measures were ‘too weak’ last spring.
Britain’s airline industry said it recognised the need to act to introduce pre-departure testing but only as a short-term, emergency measure.
Chief Executive of Airlines UK Tim Alderslade said: ‘Once the roll-out of the vaccine accelerates, the focus must be on returning travel to normal as quickly as possible in order to support the UK’s economic recovery.’
But travel consultant Paul Charles raised concerns about how realistic it is to have a pre-arrival test policy. He pointed to reports there is ‘zero’ chance of getting a test in Barbados because all resources are focused on test and trace.
He tweeted: ‘How I wonder is the government’s plan for everyone departing from overseas to take a test ever going to work?’
He also questioned what will happen if test results come back slowly, and whether the infrastructure is in place to handle the paperwork.
The government was working with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to roll out similar measures.
The new rule would not apply to the Common Travel Area which includes England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland as well as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
It comes after ministers extended the travel ban on arrivals from South Africa to its neighbouring countries to keep out the new strain.
It affects Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola, plus the Seychelles and Mauritius.
The ban comes into effect from tomorrow at 4am.
The Department for Transport said the move was in response to data showing a steep rise in cases of the new variant in the region.
Last night Israel was also removed from the ‘safe’ list.
Lockdown restrictions which came into force on Wednesday mean holidays are banned.
All passengers arriving from countries not on the government’s travel corridor list will still be required to self-isolate for ten days, regardless of their Covid test result.
Scotland, which has devolved powers over transport policy, announced on Thursday travellers from Israel and Jerusalem, Botswana, Mauritius and the Seychelles were being removed from its travel corridor list and passengers arriving from those countries would still be required to self-isolate for 10 days.
Around 230 planes hit the tarmac at Britain’s six busiest airports on Wednesday, with 26 coming from the US which is being battered by the virus.
Thousands have arrived at Heathrow in the past few days, with full data not yet available but sources at the airport said the figure was be in the tens of thousands.
In November nearly 747,000 entered through the London hub airport.
Figures from Labour yesterday showed that just three in every 100 people arriving in the UK are being checked to see if they are complying with quarantine requirements.
Mr Thomas-Symonds has written to Priti Patel to demand ‘an urgent review and improvement plan of quarantine arrangements’.
Mr Thomas-Symonds said analysis of Government data suggested just three per cent of arrivals expected to quarantine in England and Northern Ireland were successfully contacted by compliance checkers in the summer.
He said the Government’s Isolation Assurance Service, tasked with ensuring quarantine compliance, did not contact more than 1.9 million of the two million passengers spot checked by Border Force between June and September.
Ministers agreed the strict measures last night amid growing pressure to tighten borders (file image)
The new rules mean travellers will have to quarantine for ten days – even if they test negative – if arriving from a ‘red list’ country with high rates of Covid-19. Pictured, passengers arriving in New York on a flight from London
Boris Johnson confirmed earlier this week a requirement for arrivals to have tested negative will be introduced, amid alarm at the spread of new variants around the world. Pictured, border control at Heathrow Airport
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer took aim at the PM (both pictured above) in the Commons today as politicians returned to vote on the new lockdown rules.
Who doesn’t have to provide a negative test on arrival in the UK?
- Children under 11
- Air crews
- People travelling from countries where tests are not available
- Border staff
In a letter to the Home Secretary, Mr Thomas-Symonds said the numbers were ‘deeply concerning’ and demonstrate that ‘efforts to track, trace and isolate cases coming into the UK have been completely undermined’.
He said: ‘The lack of a robust quarantine system as a result of shortcomings from the Government mean that it is virtually impossible to keep a grip on this spread or other variants that may come from overseas, leaving the UK defenceless, and completely exposed, with the nation’s doors unlocked to further COVID mutations.
The Labour frontbencher said there must be ‘an urgent review and improvement plan of quarantine arrangements’ rolled out as soon as possible.
The calls for action come amid growing concerns over a variant of the disease discovered in South Africa.
The Home Office has defended its ‘stringent measures’, and pointed to its move to stop direct flights from South Africa to the UK.
In the first lockdown, the Government argued against introducing border restrictions while the prevalence was so high in the UK, with experts arguing it would do little to bring down infection rates.
However, a quarantine period was introduced in June after the first peak and when cases were more under control.