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Airport Testing Q&A: How do they work? How much do they cost? Will they help me get home for Christmas?

As facilities to test for Covid-19 open at Cork and Shannon airports, here are the key issues you need to know

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Tester Samantha Jakstonyte with Niall MacCarthy, Managing Director, Cork Airport at its RocDoc drive-thru Covid-19 testing centre. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Tester Samantha Jakstonyte with Niall MacCarthy, Managing Director, Cork Airport at its RocDoc drive-thru Covid-19 testing centre. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Tester Samantha Jakstonyte with Niall MacCarthy, Managing Director, Cork Airport at its RocDoc drive-thru Covid-19 testing centre. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Ireland’s first airport Covid-19 testing centres were launched today at Cork and Shannon, raising some hopes of travel before Christmas.

Here’s how they work, how much they cost, and what to expect next.

Where can I get the new airport tests?

Covid-19 testing facilities are now operational at Cork and Shannon airports. The drive-thru testing facilities are operated by Irish healthcare company RocDoc, and can be booked by setting up an account at covidcheck.ie.

What do the tests involve?

A healthcare worker will collect a swab sample from your nose or throat, and these will be sent to the on-site lab. Results are available within a timeframe that ranges from a few hours to a few days, depending on the price you pay.

The tests use PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and LAMP (Loop-Mediated Isothermal Amplification) technology. Both are molecular tests designed to detect a current infection.

Are they just for air travellers?

No. "Our focus is to provide testing for passengers flying in and out of the airports, but our facilities are also open to members of the public who wish to have a test or local businesses,” says David Rock, RocDoc’s chief executive.

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Tester Samantha Jakstonyte pictured at a RocDoc drive-thru Covid-19 testing centre at Cork Airport. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Tester Samantha Jakstonyte pictured at a RocDoc drive-thru Covid-19 testing centre at Cork Airport. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Tester Samantha Jakstonyte pictured at a RocDoc drive-thru Covid-19 testing centre at Cork Airport. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

How much do they cost?

Prices include €149 for same-day results, or €199 for an ‘express test’ with results in a few hours. A slower option, giving results in 1-3 working days, costs €129.

What?

Yep, they’re pricey.

Even at the low rate of €149, private tests will add considerably to the cost of any travel. And remember, depending on the destination, you may need a test both before departure and return.

For a family of four taking a return trip, that could add up to a whopping €1,192.

“PCR testing should be widely available, but at a cost of £120 to £150 a test it’s prohibitive,” Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary said at this week’s World Travel Market virtual conference.

The subsidising of tests has been suggested – but seems unlikely. Government is acutely conscious of putting extra pressure on the health system and has for now only allowed travel testing on a ‘user pays’ basis.

Where else can I get private tests?

RocDoc also has a drive-thru testing centre in Ashbourne, Co Meath, and plans another regional testing facility.

Other private options include Vida Care (€190; vidacare.ie), who recently partnered with the Carlton Dublin Airport Hotel to offer a ‘Test & Rest’ package bundling B&B and a PCR test from €249, and the Tropical Medical Bureau (€180; tmb.ie).

Competition may see lower-cost alternatives in the coming months, and we may also see airlines or tour operators include tests as part of package deals – as United Airlines has done with rapid antigen tests before flights, for instance.

What's the difference between PCR and antigen tests?

Both are swab tests diagnosing an active infection. Where PCR tests detect the virus’s genetic material, however, antigen tests detect specific proteins from it.

Antigen tests are faster (with results in as little as 15-30 minutes) and usually highly accurate, but there is an increased chance of false negative results. They are not as sensitive as molecular tests.

PCR tests are slower but seen as the ‘gold standard’. This week the Irish Government agreed that, for the time being, only results of PCR tests will be acceptable for travel (ie, not antigen tests).

What about testing at Dublin Airport?

The DAA has said it could provide thousands of tests daily at Cork and Dublin, but was held back as it waited for a planning permission exemption. That is now being granted. Testing could start as early as next week.

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The ECDC's combined indicator map from November 12, 2020.

The ECDC's combined indicator map from November 12, 2020.

The ECDC's combined indicator map from November 12, 2020.

Remind me why all of this is happening?

Ireland has signed up to the EU’s ‘traffic light’ system for travel, which rates regions as 'red', 'orange', 'green' or 'grey' based on weekly Covid incidence maps compiled by the European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

You can catch up with a full explainer on the traffic light system here.

As of this week, passengers arriving from ‘orange’ countries do not have to restrict their movements for 14 days if they carry proof of a negative PCR test result gained within the previous three days.

From November 29, travellers from ‘red’ regions, and countries outside the EU, will be able to stop restricting their movements if they get a negative PCR test result a minimum of five days after arrival.

Increasingly, other countries are requiring proof of negative PCR test results too – Spain plans to introduce this for travellers from ‘at-risk’ regions (including Ireland) from November 23, for example.

It follows the collapse of international travel during the pandemic, and desperate lobbying by the aviation and tourism industries for a testing regime to help reboot consumer confidence.

Does this mean we can fly home for Christmas?

It’s possible, but too early to say for sure.

Increased acceptability of testing, especially for those from ‘orange’ countries, could make travel easier. Aer Lingus and Ryanair have kept flights available over the holiday season and could add capacity if there is sufficient demand.

However, Ireland remains on Level 5 and a raging wave of coronavirus has turned almost all of Europe ‘red’. Today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar advised people not to book flights home yet for the festive season.

It all depends on infection rates in the coming weeks.

What restrictions do other countries have in place?

Travel between 'green' regions is without restriction, but countries have different testing and quarantine restrictions for 'orange' and 'red' countries. You can see these on the EU's Reopen-EU website.

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