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Government must step in to address problems with PCR travel test market, says watchdog

The Government must intervene in the coronavirus PCR travel test market to improve the experience for consumers, the competition watchdog has said today.

The call for action is the outcome of a rapid review of the market conducted by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), launched last month amid mounting concerns over the price, reliability and quality of service provided by some firms. As part of its review, the CMA analysed internal complaints data and reviewed evidence from consumer charity Citizens Advice, airlines, laboratories and test providers themselves. 

Complaints from customers included paying high prices for poor service, test kits and/or results arriving late or not at all, and no way to contact a firm when things go wrong. The watchdog had written to PCR test providers last month warning them to clean up their practices or face enforcement action.

Travellers must take PCR tests when they return to the UK from abroad, with more than 400 firms on the Government's official list of providers. For more info on the rules for overseas travel, see our Coronavirus Travel Rights guide.

Better provider listings and stricter monitoring needed

In advice provided to the Department of Health and Social Care after conducting a review of the PCR-testing market, the CMA recommended the following:

  • Creating a one-stop shop list of quality, approved test providers. In its research, the CMA found that being listed on the PCR travel test list was the main reason consumers chose a particular provider. As a result, that list would need to be improved to ensure consumers get the information they need to compare providers properly. This could be done by raising the basic standards to qualify for inclusion and remaining on the list.

  • Introducing a monitoring and enforcement programme. To make sure test providers on the list meet basic standards and rules. The CMA also suggested removing or sanctioning those that don't.

  • Develop the NHS Test and Trace travel test. In order to set a benchmark for quality and price, and to drive better standards across the market.

  • Monitor prices on an ongoing basis. In case price reductions are not seen on the back of other measures.

Despite the large number of firms offering coronavirus tests for travel, the CMA said competition alone would not be enough to deliver the right outcomes for consumers – meaning the Government would have to intervene to ensure travellers don't lose out.

The Government will now review the CMA's recommendations, but it says there will be tough new penalties for companies that fail to follow the law from 21 September, including fixed fines of up to £10,000.

In addition, it adds that it has now removed 91 PCR providers from its list of recommended providers. It has also corrected inaccurate prices of 135 private providers which will be removed from the list if they advertise misleading prices again.

If you're going abroad, see our How to find the cheapest Covid tests for overseas travel guide.

What do the CMA and Government say?

CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli said: "Buying a PCR travel test is a lottery. From complaints about dodgy pricing practices, to unfair terms, to failure to provide tests on time or at all, to problems with getting refunds, the experience for some is just not good enough."

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid added: “It is completely unacceptable for any private testing company to take advantage of holidaymakers and we are taking action to clamp down on cowboy behaviour.

“I am reviewing the recommendations from the Competition and Markets Authority and will outline further changes shortly to ensure consumers are given the best tests at the very best prices.”

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