Covid travel test prices misleading, says trade bodyon December 6, 2021 at 3:42 pm

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The government’s website to find coronavirus travel tests “is not serving its purpose”, a group says.

Man doing Covid test

Image source, Getty Images

The government’s website to find Covid travel tests “is not serving its purpose”, a trade body says, amid warnings about misleading prices.

The Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation (LTIO) said companies with misleading prices were “constantly reappearing” on the website.

Travellers are also being “exposed to extortionate prices”, according to consumer body Which?.

The government said it monitored issues raised about testing firms.

Concerns over the price of tests have been raised after the government announced that people arriving in the UK would need to take a PCR test before the end of their second day – on top of a pre-flight test.

Which? told the BBC that travellers were being “badly let down by a dysfunctional PCR testing market”, which had left them “exposed to extortionate prices and unreliable providers”.

The Department for Health said the average price of PCR tests from the 400-plus firms listed was “now under £45 with many available for £20”.

However, the BBC found that although PCR tests can be bought for between £15 and £20 via the government website, people often have to travel to a specific location, which could be many miles away, to take one.

The majority of postal service and home-testing kits currently cost between £59 to £79.

Several companies advertising cheaper tests on the government’s website show increased rates after clicking through, while some other websites pricing tests at £20 do not appear to exist after clicking through.

It is understood some firms advertising tests for as low as £1 have also been struck off the site.

Healthcare staff holds Covid test

Image source, Reuters

The LTIO, which works with the government to ensure the UK testing industry has high ethical and professional standards, said the government had failed to “enforce accuracy” on its providers list.

“The advantage of displaying prices on the gov.uk site is to help consumers make an informed choice when purchasing a test, yet given the government’s failure to enforce accuracy, the website is not serving its purpose,” said the trade body, which represents testing companies and laboratories.

“The LTIO believes passengers would be better off if the pricing function was removed entirely. This would put a stop to misleading companies constantly reappearing on the site with incorrect prices.”

In August, Health Secretary Sajid Javid asked the competition watchdog to investigate “excessive” pricing and “exploitative practices” among PCR Covid test firms.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) responded by making recommendations, which included that the government should to set up a monitoring and enforcement programme for test providers.

The watchdog also said rules should be put in place to prohibiting the advertising of “limited quantity” prices, to address so-called “bait pricing”, as well as making sure firms include all unavoidable costs such as delivery or administration charges.

The government has not responded to the BBC when asked what recommendations have been adopted.

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Analysis box by Theo Leggett, business correspondent

By offering very cheap tests, providers can get to the top of the government’s list. Their websites are the ones many customers will click on first, and they may end up getting more business as a result.

But if you actually want a Day 2 PCR test for £15-20, you’re likely to be disappointed. They will only be available at a single specific location, you may struggle to get an appointment, and some of the cheap rates do not seem to exist at all.

I looked for tests in the south east of England. But to get the cheapest ones, I would have had to travel to places like East Kilbride (400 miles away), or Bolton (230 miles away). A couple offered tests in London, but they were booked up for weeks to come.

The reality is that most passengers will end up paying the rates you see when you actually go to a provider’s website – with most headlining prices between £59 and £79 for a test delivered and returned by post.

The government’s claim that tests are available for £20 isn’t untrue – but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story.

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Which? travel editor, Rory Boland, said: “The official list of providers still features companies promoting misleading prices and we are yet to see the government take any meaningful action following the CMA’s audit of the private testing system.”

He urged the government to implement the CMA’s recommendations to “ensure safe, reliable and affordable tests are available for all travellers”.

He also encouraged passengers to check reviews of providers and “only book with those that have a good record of providing test kits and processing results on time”.

The Labour Party has also demanded the government takes action to tackle “eye-watering” prices for test, and to consider a price cap on tests, following France and Belgium.

Louise Haigh, shadow transport secretary, called the testing costs for people flying home for Christmas “scandalous”

“Ministers are sitting on their hands while people who want to do the right thing are paying the price for this broken market,” she added.

A statement from the Department for Health said it would continue to work with the UK Health Security Agency to “monitor issues raised by the public and take rapid action if appropriate, including striking companies from the list”.

“We’ve been clear that it is unacceptable for any private testing company to take advantage of holidaymakers,” it added.

“The government has taken action to drive down the cost of tests for international travel, with the average price of a Day 2 test now under £45 with many available for £20.”

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