PCR COVID-19 tests in Australia: What you need to know about the test you'll need before you travel

Champing at the bit to get on a plane and fly overseas again?

With some great deals for destinations in New Zealand, Asia, Europe, the UK and the US especially, many of us can't wait for the boom gates to rise so we can leave Australia.

But as we peruse all the fabulousness beyond our own shores and buy those tickets, we'll have to get ready to take a PCR test, and receive a negative result, before we even try to remember the way back to the airport.

WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

Most countries will demand that any passenger leaving Australia to visit them take a pre-departure COVID-19 PCR test and return a negative result within 72 or 48 hours of the flight. It's another of those stick-up-the-nose tests with which we've become so intimately familiar over the last 18 months.

PCR means polymerase chain reaction, and it's a test to detect genetic material from a specific organism, such as a virus, at the time of the test. It can also detect fragments even after you're no longer infected so, if you've had COVID lately, you'll also need a medical certificate from your doctor.

BUT I'M DOUBLE-VACC-ED!

Well done! But you'll still need to take a PCR test, as outlined by the destination or transit country's government, and be able to show your negative result within the stated time frame either electronically on your phone, or as a printed copy of the certificate. Ideally, you should carry both.

The aim of the tests is to reduce the chances of a positive-passenger being unknowingly carried and it'd be a good idea, after you take the test, to quarantine at home and limit any social interaction so there's no chance of picking up the virus before your flight.

WOULDN'T A RAPID ANTIGEN TEST DO INSTEAD?

No. They have the advantage of very quick results, but they're considered less reliable, with false-positives and false-negatives. PCR tests are the gold-standard.

"The difference is in the technologies," says Professor Adrian Esterman, chair of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of South Australia. "The rapid antigen test works best when the viral load is greater, two days before symptoms show to four or five days after. It's a lot less definitive and accurate than the PCR test."

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OH, OK, SO WHERE DO I GET A PCR TEST?

You can only get these at a private testing clinic; the regular COVID testing centres can't provide the approved documentation. The clinics' certificates will have your name, DOB and/or passport number, the name of the lab that did the test and the date and result.

There are a range of approved clinics, and they include those working with companies like Healius Pathology healius.com.au; Sonic Travel Testing sonictraveltesting.com.au; and SAFEWORK Laboratories safeworklaboratories.com.au. All these companies use labs under different names and at various locations throughout the country.

You apply to one of the companies for a referral and then visit the nearest centre at the appropriate time, and they'll email you the result. "Our turnaround time is 24-48 hours," says Healius Pathology chief commercial officer Jon Eide. "But we do also have an express option that is more complex for us, so it is more expensive."

WHAT WILL IT COST?

The price of the PCR test may vary slightly between different clinics, but generally is about $150. Healius's express option is $300. And no, there's nothing back on Medicare – yet.

IS THERE A FAMILY DISCOUNT?

Sorry, no. Everyone travelling over the age of two, or five – depending on the destination – will need one, so a family of four will end up paying a substantial $600. You should perhaps factor the cost into your travel budget. For group travel the price may be negotiable.

WHAT HAPPENS IF THE TEST ISN'T NEGATIVE?

Good question. It actually has to be negative. An inconclusive result is deemed as being positive and you won't be allowed to board the plane for the flight. Then, it's down to the airline whether you can claim a refund or change your flight. Early indications are that most airlines will allow some flexibility.

At Qantas, for example, all fares are flexible, so you can get a credit voucher or rebook the flight later, and only pay extra if the later fare is higher. Singapore Air will waive the re-booking fee and also only charge if it's pricier. At Etihad, any guest who tests positive can change or cancel their flight, and all flights include complimentary COVID insurance in case anyone has to quarantine.

CAN I TAKE THE TEST IN ADVANCE SO I CAN BE SURE?

No, you can't take it any earlier than your destination's rules state. Any earlier, and the result won't be accepted, and you won't be allowed to board the plane.

But don't leave it to the last minute, either. There's likely to be a surge of Australians heading overseas as soon as the borders open, so you may have to wait longer for test results as the labs reach full capacity.

WHERE CAN I DOUBLE-CHECK THE REGULATIONS?

Before you book and travel, check the latest Australian Government regulations at covid19.homeaffairs.gov.au. At the moment, you may have to take a PCR test before you board the plane to come home too, and then serve seven days home quarantine afterwards.

Also make sure you take a close look at the government rules in the country you're planning to visit, and any country you're transiting through. They may differ widely. And check regularly – it's all very new and currently a bit of a moving feast.

WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

We live in a new world now and, sadly, travel is never going to be as easy as it once was – or certainly not in the short term. But a little inconvenience is worth it if it's going to keep you and your family safe, as well as the people in the countries you'll be visiting.

So stop whining and get on with it, and then get out there. There's a whole world out there waiting, and it's never before looked quite so inviting.

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