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Is this the end of fit to fly COVID-19 PCR tests?

The UK government’s U-turn on fit to fly PCR tests has brought new regulation. But we predict that they will be back.

19th October 2021Caitlin Stanway-Williams

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing was thrown suddenly into the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now something almost everyone is far too familiar with

The method is used to rapidly make millions to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample, amplifying a very small sample of DNA to make a large enough amount to study in detail. Using PCR testing, scientists are able to identify COVID-19 in saliva samples.

PCR tests can generate results in just a few hours. This speedy turnover is vital to containing the virus and ensuring overseas travel is possible during a pandemic. Additionally, PCR tests are generally considered more reliable than lateral flow tests due to their extremely high specificity.

Fit to fly PCR testing has been a requirement of many countries in order to prevent the COVID-19 virus – and its many mutations – arriving from abroad. As a result, when the borders reopened, a number of facilities focused on meeting the demand. So when, in September, the UK government announced it was stopping fit to fly PCR tests for vaccinated arrivals, it was a shock – and a blow to these organisations.

But, in light of their ever-shifting travel policies, does the UK government’s U-turn really mean the end of fit to fly PCR tests?


What are the PCR test requirements for travelling now?

Starting 4 October 2021, pre- and post-arrival PCR tests are no longer a requirement for double-vaccinated individuals travelling into the UK. These people will only be required to show a lateral flow test. Those who are unvaccinated, however, will still be required to do a PCR test before and after arriving in the UK.

Outside of the UK, the requirements for PCR tests vary from country to country.

PCR test blog screening

The fluctuating state of COVID-19 regulations

Throughout the pandemic, the rules and requirements for containing the virus have been changing month from month. And this latest disruption to the fit to fly requirements has been no exception.

As recently as August, fit to fly PCR tests seemed to be a solid part of the government’s approach to containing the virus. In fact, health minister Lord Bethell insisted that fit to fly PCR tests were here ‘for the foreseeable future’. Government scientists were strongly opposed to a relaxation of the rules.

Yet just days later, it was announced that fit to fly PCR testing would no longer be required for double-vaccinated travellers, after pressure from the travel industry to get rid of the tests in order to improve tourism.

Will the rules around fit to fly PCR testing change again?

Given the government’s ever-changing COVID-19 rules, the predicted rise in cases across Europe this winter, and the outcry from the scientific community, it is likely that fit to fly PCR testing will be reinstated in some form in the near-future.

Figure 1: Number of new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Europe 2021.

PCR test graph

Source: Statista

Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, which feeds into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), stated that the removal of fit to fly PCR tests will impact on the UK’s ability to spot dangerous infections coming into the UK.

Reicher insisted that PCR tests were necessary and ‘very, very valuable’ in discovering asymptomatic cases. He explained: ‘I do think we need PCR tests, because everybody always said that lateral flow tests were never what were called greenlight tests – tests to say you’re safe and therefore you can act as if you don’t have the virus.’

He argues that the fit to fly PCR test policy needs to be improved, not removed.

Additionally, with the opening of schools and COVID-19 cases set to increase over the next few months, the demand for PCR testing for the general public will only increase.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and the science suggests that PCR tests, whether for fit to fly, population screening or other needs, can be of huge help in curtailing its effects, then the question is not whether the tests return or not, the question is: How can facilities ramp up for testing when the next U-turn is announced?


How can fit to fly companies scale up testing to prepare for changes?

The reality of the matter is that the world is still in the early stages of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. Fit to fly testing is a critical part of continuing life in the ‘new normal’ over the next five or so years.

As the last eighteen months have made clear, we should anticipate sudden and dramatic changes to the government’s policy. It is therefore necessary that labs and testing facilities are as prepared as possible for the changes that occur.

Rapidly scaling to meet COVID-19 testing demand is a huge challenge, however, and it is simply not possible without one key component: Automation.

Scaling COVID case study

Automating highly-repetitive tasks, like pipetting and barcode scanning, improves the speed, accuracy and affordability of mass COVID-19 PCR testing. It also allows labs to be more flexible, so they can quickly respond to changes in demand triggered by shifting government policies – without needing to hire more staff.

Learn how to rapidly scale your PCR testing in our whitepaper: Scaling COVID-19 testing with lab automation, or speak to our automation experts about the solutions we have available for automating fit to fly PCR tests.

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