Data protection for your foreign travel Covid PCR test – is there any?

Covid PCR test

The holiday and foreign travel landscape changes almost weekly with green orange and red countries being moved between the 3 lists. Travel advice covers both the country you are going to as well as what you must do when returning to the UK.

The Government advice for travel to Portugal (for example) is, “All passengers, excluding children up to the age of 2, travelling to or through mainland Portugal in transit, must show a negative RT-PCR test result for SARS/COVID-19 at the time of boarding. “

Unlike rapid flow tests which can give a result from home within 30 minutes, PCR tests must be sent to a lab to be checked.

The cost of a PCR test can range from between £15 and £500. Some airlines and companies offer PCR tests from just £60.

What tests do I need and where can I get them?

The standard NHS home DIY antigen test is not enough. Travellers must get tested by a recognised testing supplier on the government’s recommended list.

Antigen tests, also known as LAMP (loop-mediated isothermal amplification) tests are faster and cheaper than PCR (polymerise chain reaction) tests that must be sent to a lab for analysis. Some countries accept either test while the majority insist on a PCR test.

Often, antigen tests only detect positive results after you have had symptoms for a few days.

The UK government and the government of your destination country probably have different regulations and controls in place – and you need to be aware of both.

Getting more information

The most useful guide we have come across is this one from Which magazine dated early June 2021.

Probably the most important thing to note is that some countries insist on a nose & throat swab for a PCR test, rather than the more convenient “spit into a tube” variety. Others insist that the test be carried out by a qualified clinician.

It all means that you need to do your research or at least check with your travel agent or airline if at all possible. The BBC updates its travel advice page frequently.

The Government’s free PCR test service is not valid for travel

You can order a free PCR test under the Government’s testing provisions. The website states that “This test should not be used for the purpose of international travel. You can purchase a private test if required.” The site also lays out very comprehensive data protection commitments and names the relevant Data Controller (Data Protection Officer). This provides a suitable degree of confidence and comfort.

However, the same is not true of the private PCR test providers.

How is my personal data protected when using private test providers?

It’s not, really, and we feel it could be tightened up.

The government notes on travel abroad say “You can compare and choose a test provider based on cost, turnaround time, and whether they are available in your region. The government does not endorse or recommend any specific test provider – you should do your own research about them and their terms and conditions.

The list of providers numbers 460 with test prices ranging from £15 to £399. It’s up to the individual to decide which one is most appropriate based on turnaround time and location as well as budget.

We selected one at random: Quick Clinics for £20. When you navigate to their website, the list of options would seem to indicate that it can cost quite a lot more than the stated base price unless you can visit their London clinic and wait 48 hours for results.

More importantly, there is no Privacy Policy on that website that we could find, or no details of how your data is handled, stored and protected, or with whom it may be shared. It does proudly state “Listed by the UK Government Department of Health & Social Care for international coronavirus testing.” True but absolutely meaningless.

This scenario is very obviously a case of “buyer beware” and an environment where the government appears to have made no effort to apply standards for data protection.

The bottom line

Our health data is worth quite a lot of money to the likes of US medical insurance companies and healthcare providers. Data confidentiality is a hot topic these days and most of us are aware of its importance. Our government has splashed a great deal of our money about under the umbrella of pandemic response but should do more to close these obvious loopholes.

Some of these websites have been described as “straight up dodgy”, making you fill out a questionnaire requesting date of birth, passport number and expiry date, address, car registration and so on. Only to then find that they are fully booked.

The system should be a secure exchange of data between “the company” and the data owner, which is us and the government.