“Obviously, I don’t want to give people ideas, this is not what the general public should be doing,” says Sophie, over the phone to me. She’s explaining the circumstances that led up to her doctoring a PCR test result late last year, in order to travel to a Caribbean island.
“We booked flights last minute at the start of last December, when we were all still in Tier 2. The lockdown had just lifted in November and we thought the future was bright, we could see everyone at Christmas, the Government was telling us ‘it’s ok to meet people, have your bubbles’.”
Then London, where Sophie is based, was placed into Tier 4, and international travel was banned. “We immediately contacted our airline, but they told us they wouldn’t be giving refunds because other people in the country could still travel, so how were they to know we were really in London?
“We were faced with either losing £1,500 a head or taking a risk and going anyway.” The couple made the decision to travel in spite of the restrictions: “We’re saving to buy a house, so to just lose that amount of money was out of the question. I couldn’t bear it. It’s not like we went into Tier 4 and booked the flights, we already had them, and at that point we felt there was no alternative.”
Concerns over when their next holiday would be were also a factor. “December is the best time to go away for my partner due to his job – it’s really the only time we can take off together as a couple,” she explained. “So as well as losing the money, there was also the potential that we wouldn’t be able to go away again together for another year – and we were both so burnt out at that stage.”
Catching the virus also wasn’t much of a concern for the couple, who aren’t in an at-risk group and felt safe travelling. “I was very lucky last year and managed to go to Europe in the summer, so I knew the extensive precautions that were in place. Personally, I felt comfortable with that aspect. All my anxieties were focused on potentially getting caught and fined,” she says.
Booking a holiday since the start of the pandemic has been fraught with risk, due to the possibility of new restrictions and the short timeframe of many countries’ testing requirements. Sophie and her partner ended up finding themselves at the blunt end of both these issues.
“Our destination needed us to take a PCR test beforehand, so we bought Covid kits with a 48-hour guarantee on results and a flight certificate,” she continued. “We knew it was Christmas-time, so we posted them together as early as possible. We could track them, so we knew they’d been received.
“Then, the day before we were due to leave, my boyfriend received his test results – but I had nothing. I tried calling the company, but there was no one around that I could speak to. It became clear my results weren’t going to arrive on time.” With the test costs, Sophie and her partner had also now added another £140 each onto the amount potentially wasted.
“At this point, I’d already made the decision to travel in spite of the restrictions, and with the test being the only thing that would hold me back, what my partner and I decided to do – which I really do not condone – was Photoshop my result.
“He sent me the PDF of his ‘fit to fly’ certificate and I don’t know if this is the same for other companies, but there was nothing on it that was unique to him, like a barcode. It just had his name, passport number, birthday and the date he’d tested negative. All I had to do was edit the PDF to add my own information and resave it. We compared the two certificate print-outs and they looked exactly the same.”
There were two potential outcomes from this forgery: high fines and the chance of infecting other passengers on their planned flight, but Sophie stressed: “I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t known my delayed test was definitely a negative result.” She had already taken a separate test “a few days before as a precautionary measure” which had come back negative. “It was just the two of us isolating at home, so I was pretty confident this second test would also be negative, especially given my partner’s was. I wasn’t comfortable faking the test result, but that’s why I did what I did.”
She adds: “I think we were also fuelled by the desperate need to just get away. We couldn’t see our families, and the thought of spending Christmas alone – which I know a lot of other people did – was awful. And there were those who did go to see their families at Christmas despite the rules, which we knew we wouldn’t be doing. I would never put my family at risk.” In contrast, Sophie felt she “was going to a country where everyone had to produce a negative test”, which was “safer”.
“Going through the airport, we had a story planned. We picked a place in the UK – Bristol – that wasn’t under Tier 4, to say we lived in. I even had a postcode memorised. I was so nervous, then we got to the check-in desk, and no one questioned us. That was the moment that I went, ‘oh, ok, no one’s asking us anything’ and relaxed.”
Sophie was only asked to show her test certificate twice, and it was never taken off her for more extensive checking. “We had to show our test certificates before we boarded, and that was the only other time I was like ‘oh my god, will they figure me out?’ But no. They didn’t even check that any of my details aligned with my passport. Everyone was buying tests from different companies with different formats, so they just wanted to see that my print-out said ‘negative’ on it.”
Though she couldn’t speak for the possibility of others faking their results, she was sure she wasn’t the only one flouting the Tier 4 travel ban rules: “I heard a lot of southern accents on our flight, I’ll say that.”
By the time she had landed, Sophie’s real test results had arrived in her inbox – thankfully negative. “I showed the faked ‘fit-to-fly’ certificate in the destination airport too though, as it was already printed out, and it looked exactly the same as the certificate I had been sent.” No other issues arose for the duration of their holiday.
Reports of faked PCR test results have cropped up over the past few months, as more countries have made them mandatory for arrivals – the UK being the most recent addition to this list. “Honestly, I just edited a PDF, and I’m really not someone who does this kind of thing,” commented Sophie. “What’s stopping people with better computer skills from creating an entire result without needing to pay for the test? It’s definitely concerning.”
For Sophie, the entire experience is indicative of wider flaws in the UK’s Covid systems. “Eight days after we arrived back home, the Test and Trace system contacted us to say someone on our return flight had tested positive for Covid.” As a result, she and her partner had to self-isolate.
“Luckily, we weren’t going anywhere due to the lockdown, but to me it highlights just how much these systems have failed. If we had caught Covid on that flight, it took them eight full days to reach out to us. What if we had been out to loads of supermarkets, or met a friend? We didn’t, but I can’t speak for anyone else and our flight was full coming back.”
Now back in the UK, does she regret her actions, despite having tested negative for Covid a few days prior to travel? “If I’m completely honest, no. It got us on holiday, and my result was negative in the end. And I came back to a full lockdown with that little slice of happiness.”
“If it had turned out I had Covid, of course I would regret the whole thing,” she emphasised. “That I was certain I didn’t have it is the only thing that makes me feel a tiny bit better about all this. I’m also not in a position of power, so it was an entirely personal decision – I’m not influencing anyone. No one knows me, I’m a nobody.
“It is what it is. I do feel like a terrible person – don’t do what I did.”
Name and destination have been changed.