Give holidaymakers ‘at cost’ NHS Covid tests to beat rip-offs, urge senior Tories

·9-min read
Double-jabbed holidaymakers will no longer have to take expensive PCR tests on their return to the UK and can use lateral flow tests instead - Leon Neal/Getty Images
Double-jabbed holidaymakers will no longer have to take expensive PCR tests on their return to the UK and can use lateral flow tests instead - Leon Neal/Getty Images

Holidaymakers should be given “at cost” NHS lateral flow tests to combat rip-offs by private sector firms, senior Tories have said.

Henry Smith, the chairman of the All Party Future of Aviation parliamentary group, and Lord Tyrie of Chichester, a former chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority, said such tests provided by the Government would be a benchmark on price and standards that would guard against profiteering.

The Government announced on Friday that from the end of October, double-jabbed holidaymakers will no longer have to take expensive PCR tests on their return to the UK and can use lateral flow tests instead. On Saturday, airline chiefs said they would support this move.

However, MPs and travel chiefs are concerned that the market in lateral flow tests may result in a scandal similar to PCR testing, which has seen travellers ripped off with inflated prices, as well as late or non-existent deliveries of test kits and results.

Analysis by The Telegraph found that test providers on the Government’s official website were charging up to £150 for lateral flow tests. As many as a third were pricing the tests at £50 or more, which was more than three times the cheapest at £14.99.

Mr Smith said: “Perhaps an NHS ‘at cost’ test option could be available to counter expensive profiteering we’ve seen on private tests. Also, there is a legitimate public health point to ensuring those arriving in England are Covid-free.”

Lord Tyrie said: “The Government should publish the cost of its own travel tests, both PCR and lateral flow. They should not only provide a benchmark service, but they should also promote it.”

Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “Would we back the use of free lateral flow tests as opposed to paid ones? Of course. It would make a huge difference to passengers and the lower cost of travel would boost demand and load factors.

“Do we think these tests are needed at all though? No, as the data shows and the fact most of Europe has got rid of them. We don’t want to see them baked in for the long term.”

The Government’s travel announcement prompted an influx of Britons making reservations for the school half-term holiday, which begins on October 25.

Alan French, the chief executive of Thomas Cook, said bookings for the week had risen by 200 per cent from August.

Andrew Flintham, the managing director of Tui UK, said he had already seen “an uptick in bookings for Turkey in October” and expected a boost in customer confidence with the new rules.

Meanwhile, officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have said unvaccinated tourists will be allowed to attend the delayed Expo 2020 event in Dubai next month, as the Gulf state defies fears of a dire winter wave of Covid.

They said they are confident the event can go ahead without any mass outbreaks of the disease as most of its population has been double jabbed, while there will be a large number of Covid test centres on site.

During the six-month trade exhibition, the UAE hopes to welcome some 25 million visitors from 190 different countries, including a British trade delegation. It is expected to be the world’s largest public event since the start of the pandemic.

The Department of Health and Social Care said the price of tests for international travel has reduced, with day two and eight home testing packages available for under £95 and a day test for less than £55.

It added that from October 4, the removal of pre-departure testing requirements for double jabbed passengers travelling from non-red list countries will mean a family of four could save around £120 when travelling overseas.

In addition, it said the cost of testing will be reduced further at the end of October when PCR tests will be replaced with lateral flow tests for passengers arriving in the country.

The Government should consider a price cap on travel tests

By Lord Tyrie of Chichester, the former chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority

Lord Tyrie of Chichester, the former chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority - Steve Back
Lord Tyrie of Chichester, the former chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority - Steve Back

Over the summer, hundreds of thousands of travellers were ripped off when they bought PCR tests. Some paid exorbitant prices, others bought kits that were not delivered, and many did not get their results back in time. The unlucky got a double whammy.

The full scale of this scandal has yet to be appreciated. Last month, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, appreciated its scale quickly. He spurred the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into action, by asking for further advice on how to improve the market.

He now needs to spur his own Department into action to take forward the CMA’s recommendations, published earlier this month. The Government, and government policy, created this mess. It is the Government’s responsibility to fix it and quickly.

The Government has signalled an overhaul of the traffic light system and travel testing regime, but PCR tests will remain for the vaccinated for another six weeks and for the unvaccinated until at least New Year. And many of the test providers will supply the lateral flow tests required from the end of October for the fully vaccinated traveller on arrival in the UK for which the Government is expecting the traveller to pay.

The flaws in the testing market are legion, but the fundamental weakness has been that there is no tool for good providers to drive out the bad. In most markets, that tool is consumer choice. But even the most digitally literate and determined consumers have not stood a chance. They now need far better information to sort the good from the bad; and higher minimum standards to prevent them falling victim to the ugly.

The problems have originated with the Government website. Here, travellers are confronted with a list of over 400 testing providers. The algorithm that presumably determines their position on the list has demonstrably been gamed. Sitting near the top are firms with names that rank highly in alphabetically-arranged lists, such as ++0044 COVID Test. Such firms appear to charge low prices (again, as a way of ranking highly): £20 is the going rate.

But it often transpires, much later in the booking process, that these “bargains” are either completely unavailable, or require travel to an inaccessible or remote location. The government website does not merely fail to stop providers engaging in such cynical practices; it has been rewarding them with the highest rankings.

Travellers might reasonably assume that providers listed on a government website would at least be required to meet minimum standards of customer service. On the contrary – a disclaimer tells them to “do your own research”.

The Government decides who appears on the list. It should have been using this power to clean it up. And it should now be doing so with great urgency. The CMA has recommended, as a condition of remaining on the list, higher standards, and compliance with consumer law.

Honest pricing must be applied

But it is short on specifics: these standards should explicitly be expected to include liability for consumer costs when test results are late; honest pricing; and a staffed phone line and email address with a minimum response time. Shockingly, no such standards appear yet to apply.

The CMA advice has also recommended better presentation of information on the website, to help travellers judge the best providers. Again, it provides little detail. But customer reviews, performance data (for example the proportion of tests processed on time) and complaint rates should all be visible on the government website from now on.

The CMA has also recommended that the Government develop its own travel tests and use it as a benchmark to drive up standards. For this to be effective, the Government needs to start promoting it. They do the opposite. Unacceptably, the service is listed (among over 400 others) obscurely as “CTM NHS T&T”.

Only a fluke or inside knowledge would penetrate the “secret” that it even exists. The Government’s own testing regime should provide a reasonably priced backstop on which the consumer can rely, needed not least because the testing regime may change further in the months ahead.

The CMA’s advice does not reflect on its own substandard performance. Problems were widely reported from April. It could have moved much earlier with warning letters or, if possible, starting a test case, or both. Instead, it appears to have done little more than provide quiet advice to Government, with negligible deterrent value.

And it still appears a reluctant participant in the clean-up: it should now be vetting providers’ terms of conditions; clarifying which trading practices it considers unlawful; and, if possible, taking legal action against the worst providers. The Government should ask the CMA to take this forward as a matter of urgency, too.

Bring back the Covid taskforce

The Government should also ask the CMA immediately to reconstitute its Covid taskforce, along with the online complaints form which it promoted. Complaints provide further crucial information to enable the Government to find out what is going on in the market place and to move quickly on abuses.

The taskforce did a fine job at the start of the Covid crisis 18 months ago. Inexplicably, it has been shut down: had it been in place, this scandal would probably not have developed, and certainly not on such a scale.

So far, it has been a case of too little, too late. Parliament should act. For example, select committees could require a detailed progress report from both the Government and the CMA on the implementation of the recommendations within a couple of weeks.

And a post mortem is probably warranted. Such an investigation can act as a deterrent for some of the current malpractice. And it may at least give the public more confidence that such a scandal will not develop again.

There is a case for a price cap. Price caps can be anti-competitive. However, the abuses in this market are too shocking to be allowed to persist. Both tourist and business travel are likely tor revive, possibly quickly. Without tough action, another travel testing scandal beckons. If it does, the public won’t be so charitable.

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