The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has published advice for the UK government on ways to improve the private polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing market, calling for tougher vetting of private companies selling Covid-19 tests to travellers.

More than 80 private Covid-19 travel testing companies were recently sent a two-strike warning after listing lower prices on the government’s website than were really available at point of checkout.

The CMA said the private PCR testing market risked a “race to the bottom” where providers compete on grounds other than high clinical quality, at the expense of travellers.

Companies that appeared on the government’s list of approved retailers were reported to have lost customers’ test kits, failed to provide results within the necessary timeline and refused refunds.

The CMA has called on the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to “significantly” improve the basic standards required to qualify for inclusion on the government’s online PCR tests retailer list. It has also called for the DHSC to continually monitor the firms that make it on to the list, removing and sanctioning the ones that fall below its standards. It has also argued that the provider listings on the government’s website should be made more user-friendly so travellers can more easily compare providers and find the best deals.

The watchdog wants the NHS Test and Trace travel test to be used as a benchmark for quality and price, and for the government to monitor test kit prices on an ongoing basis.

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CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli said: “The PCR testing market is unusual because its key features are dictated by Government policy decisions to fight the pandemic.

“This means a more interventionist approach to shape behaviour in the market from the outset, backed up by monitoring and enforcement, is needed.

“We stand ready to keep working with the Government to make this market work better for everyone.”

UK travellers must take PCR tests when they return from abroad, to be purchased from a government list of over 400 authorised firms.

Last week the CMA began an investigation into one of these firms, Expert Medicals, after complaints that test results had not been provided on time or at all. It has also warned 19 more firms about misleading prices after finding that customers had faced poor service, hidden fees and refund issues.

Travel PCR tests cost around £75 per person on average, but some have been offered for as little as £20 or more than £500.