Inside Britain's 'Wild West' travel testing regime

Inside Britain’s ‘Wild West’ travel testing regime: How holidaymakers faced being charged £117 for tests advertised for £1.99 on government website – as Sajid Javid finally acts to end rip-off

  • Industry experts say rip-off PCR market was caused by a lack of regulation 
  • Middlemen companies rushed into the market with little Government oversight 
  • Government’s own single PCR test package will now fall from £88 to £68 

Britain’s wild west PCR testing for travel regime where swabs that were supposed to cost £2 actually sold for more than £100 was caused by a lack of regulation, industry experts have claimed. 

In one of the most embarrassing moments of the testing fiasco, the Government had to change a company’s £1.99 listing on its website showing approved PCR testing providers to show that its kits actually cost £117. 

And insiders say the broken system was caused by experts pushing for more expensive PCR tests as a requirement for travel, the decision to allow private providers to sell the tests and a lack of oversight on the Government’s part to prevent middlemen companies profiteering.

It means companies like Corporate Travel Management — which has received a one-star rating in 210 out of 217 reviews on Trust Pilot for its tests — could enter the market without being blocked. 

Minister have only now, finally moved to tackle the market — dropping the cost of their own Covid tests by a fifth in the hope private firms will follow.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted the Government’s own costs were too high and said its single post-holiday PCR test package will fall from £88 to £68. A two-swab NHS Test and Trace package will be cut from £170 to £136.

Mr Javid also accused some private testing firms of ‘acting like cowboys’ by advertising misleading prices on the Government website and vowed to boot them off within days.

But the changes were dismissed by the travel industry last night, with bosses saying the price cuts amounted to ‘tinkering’.

The head of Gatwick Airport said testing should be removed altogether for the double vaccinated to restore ‘shattered’ passenger confidence and help the industry through a desperate time.

Ministers were branded ‘hypocrites’ this week after repeatedly calling on private firms to drop their prices but failing to cut their own for summer.

Britain’s wild west PCR testing for travel regime where swabs that were supposed to cost £1.99 actually sold for £117 was caused by a lack of regulation, industry experts have claimed

Pictured: Passengers waiting in line outside the Testing Centre in the Arrival Hall of Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport

But the testing troubles began in earnest when the Government decided to introduce testing as a requirement for travel earlier in the year, experts said.

SAGE described the gold-standard PCR test as the ‘key defence’ against variants coming into the country from abroad back in January 21, because these can be used to sequence mutant strains of the virus.

But the NHS’s calamitous Test and Trace system did not have the capacity to meet demand from travellers so the decision was made to open the market up to the private sector, paving the way for rogue firms to set whatever price they chose. 

George Batchelor, a health economist at Edge Health, told the Daily Telegraph: ‘Expensive PCR tests are always going to be better than cheaper lateral flow tests. 

‘Two tests are always going to be better than one, so why not more and more testing, they argued?

‘There was never another side to the coin and that was against a backdrop of the NHS test and trace capacity not meeting demand. The testing capacity would have to come from the private sector.’

Research by airline consultancy Skytrax shows airport PCR tests were available for as little as $8 (£5.70) in Mumbai, India, in April. The cost in Britain was nearly £100

The Government identified providers capable of delivering the tests and lab facilities, listing around 430 on its website.

It also provided its own NHS package, which inflated the market because of its previous price of £88.

Middlemen firms acting as commercial fronts that buy testing expertise for laboratories quickly spotted a way to profit from the hectic market and little was done to regulate firms or protect consumers.

The UK Accreditation Service is ostensibly performing that job but firms are not audited for their timeliness or prices. 

It meant companies like Corporate Travel Management entered the market without interference. The firm offers tests for people returning to Britain priced at £210.

More than 400 firms rushed to get in, with some naming themselves Aardvark or 0001doctor in order to rank at the top of approved lists of providers, company bosses claimed. Neither company has been accused of misrepresenting their products. 

It comes after Mail reported how the Department of Health was charging more than four times what the cheapest private provider was advertising on the Government’s website. This ratio has doubled from earlier this summer.

It is understood that officials do not want NHS Test and Trace travel swabs to dominate the market and hope the move will nudge private firms into bringing their own prices down so more families looking for a well-earned break can afford to go abroad.

Officials will now also conduct a rapid review of the firms listed on the Government website and boot off any deemed to be ripping off or misleading consumers

Industry insiders have previously said the Government’s own prices have inflated the market and that they won’t bring down their own costs until ministers move first.

Officials will now also conduct a rapid review of the firms listed on the Government website and boot off any deemed to be ripping off or misleading consumers. The internal review will start this weekend and last ten days. Providers failing to meet necessary standards will be immediately removed.

It will run alongside the review being conducted by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), ordered by Mr Javid last week after a flood of complaints from customers about receiving swabs and results late or not at all.

This has led to some having to extend their quarantine period or even miss flights.

Announcing the latest moves, Mr Javid suggested he was expecting the CMA initial findings within days so swift action can be taken.

He added: ‘I know how much people have looked forward to their summer holidays and that the cost of PCR testing can be a barrier to that. That is why I am determined to protect consumers and hard-working families from exploitative practices and ensure high quality tests are available at a reasonable price.

‘I am pleased to announce that with immediate effect we’re slashing the price of day 2 and 8 tests from NHS Test and Trace by a fifth – this will benefit people right across the UK…

‘I’ve also ordered my department to urgently review the list of private providers on gov.uk to ensure pricing is clearer and transparent.

‘Any provider found to be misleading the public will be kicked off. Too many providers are acting like cowboys and that needs to stop.

‘The public should be allowed to enjoy their summer holidays without having to face excessive costs or anxiety.’

There are more than 400 private firms listed on the Government’s website. Yesterday, the average price of a single PCR swab across them all was £90

There are 441 private firms listed on the Government’s website. Yesterday, the average price of a single PCR swab across them all was £90.

Prices are listed between £20 and £400.

However, as the Mail reported this week, the cheapest rates are often not realistically obtainable for many, as when clicking through to each firm’s website they are mostly out of stock or offered in centres, meaning many would have to travel hundreds of miles to take advantage of them. It is this practice that Mr Javid is looking to clamp down on.

However, the new Government price could still add more than £250 to the cost of a foreign break for a family of four.

For an unvaccinated family, it could add more than £500.

The travel industry last night dismissed the price cuts as ‘tinkering’ and said they ‘do not go anywhere near far enough’.

Karen Dee, CEO of the Airport Operators Association, said: ‘It is time for the Government to get a grip on testing and replace costly PCR tests with more affordable rapid tests for low-risk countries and bring international travel in line with the rest of the economy.’

Paul Charles, of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: ‘Even with the changes, test costs are still far too high to restore confidence to travel, and also far higher than most European countries.

‘Providers who are making substantial profits during the pandemic are acting unethically when consumers are being forced to take these PCR tests by Government. It’s the policy that urgently needs reviewing, not just pricing.’ 

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