More than 80 private Covid-19 travel testing companies operating in England have been sent a two-strike warning after listing lower prices on the government’s website than are available at point of checkout.
The UK currently divides foreign countries into red, amber and green list countries, each with different respective Covid-19 regulations for arriving travellers. All three lists require them to take multiple Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
People arriving in England must book two private Covid-19 tests: one to be taken on day two or sooner after they arrive and one on day eight after they arrive or later. The day of arrival itself is counted as day zero.
The 82 providers that have been warned account for around 18% of the companies on the government’s approved list of PCR test retailers.
Brands will be removed from the list if they fail to take action within three days of strike one as part of the new two-strike policy, according to the UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
The action has taken place following a rapid review of the day two and day eight testing providers listed on the website.
A further 57 providers are being removed from the page altogether, as they no longer exist or do not provide a relevant day two or day eight testing service.
The government website will now be updated to reflect the true prices of the tests and the companies will be warned that they will be removed if they advertise misleading prices again.
UK Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “It is absolutely unacceptable for any private testing company to be taking advantage of holidaymakers and today’s action clamps down on this cowboy behaviour.
“57 firms will be removed from the GOV.UK list and a further 82 will be given a two-strike warning – if they advertise misleading prices ever again, they’re off.
“We are also introducing regular spot checks this week to make sure all private providers follow the rules and meet our high standards of transparency.”
PCR travel tests: CMA investigates further
The warnings arrived alongside a Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigation into the price of PCR Covid-19 tests in the UK, after Javid called for a review into the “excessive” pricing and “exploitative practices” of certain test providers.
The CMA will explore whether there are pricing and reliability problems in the large private PCR testing market. It is also investigating whether PCR providers are breaching obligations under consumer law and what immediate actions the government needs to take.
Travel industry bosses have blamed the high cost of the private PCR tests for putting people off travelling abroad. Holidaymakers have also complained about the high prices and missing tests or test results from the many hundreds of firms offering the services.
The tests cost around £75 on average, but some companies are offering them for as little as £20 or as much as £500.
Clinical diagnostics company Randox founder Peter Fitzgerald told the BBC there needs to be a “cleaning out” of the private PCR test market. Fitzgerald has also said some providers have been “charging high amounts of money” or potentially not giving the service they claim to be giving.
Randox is one of the biggest providers of PCR testing services, processing around 50,000 travel tests a day.
Antibody tests to be offered to UK public
Meanwhile, Covid-19 antibody tests are set to be widely offered to the UK public for the first time as part of a new programme to find out how much natural immunity people have after getting Covid-19.
Anyone over 18 will be able to opt into the scheme when having a PCR test from 24 August. Of those who test positive, up to 8,000 will be sent two home antibody tests.
The first will need to be done as soon as possible after the positive result, before a detectable antibody response will have been generated to the current infection, to see if they have any pre-existing Covid-19 antibodies. The second will be taken 28 days later to measure the antibodies generated in response to the infection.
The data collected will help to estimate the proportion of people who catch Covid-19 despite developing antibodies following vaccination or prior infection. It will also provide insight into how well vaccinated individuals might boost their immunity when they are infected and how this could vary with different variants.
The initiative could also provide insight into any groups of people who do not develop an immune response.
All of this information could inform the prospective future rollout of Covid-19 booster jabs in the UK, a campaign which Javid has said he is “confident” can start next month.