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Government cracks down on ‘cowboy’ Covid test providers

More than 80 “cowboy” Covid travel testing companies will be issued a ‘two-strike’ warning and could be removed from the government’s website for misleading prices.

The 82 private providers – around 18% of those listed – have been identified in an urgent review as displaying lower prices on gov.uk than are available on their websites at the point of checkout.

Gov.uk will be updated to reflect the true cost of the tests and companies will be warned this week that they will be removed if they advertise misleading prices again.

A further 57 companies will be removed from the official list today (Monday) as they no longer exist or do not provide day 2 and day 8 testing.

Regular spot checks will be introduced to make sure companies are complying with the rules to ensure prices displayed are accurate, providers are legitimate and companies have not changed their name to get back on the list.

The crackdown follows mounting pressure on ministers to cut the cost of travel tests amid warnings that high and opaque prices have put people off going on overseas holidays or visiting friends and family abroad.

Health 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.

“Fifty seven 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.”

Companies will be removed from the gov.uk list if they fail to take action within three days of strike one as part of the new two-strike policy.

The action will help ensure consumers can trust the testing providers listed on gov.uk and only the most reliable companies are available.

Tests booked for travel with companies not listed can still be used for travel, providing those companies meet legal requirements.

The findings will be shared with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to support its review of the market and align recommendations and actions.

The Department of Health and Social Care says it has analysed and improved processes for managing the private provider list, including introducing more stringent checks on pricing.

Guidelines will be published in “due course” to the market addressing pricing and service standards.

However, Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “It is inexcusable that it has taken the government nearly half a year to properly audit its own list of private test providers to remove firms that don’t exist and others advertising misleading prices.

“The number of firms being taken off or facing a warning shows the huge difficulty travellers face in choosing a trustworthy, reliable test provider. Many will have faced delays and missing tests because they used cowboy firms listed by the government.

“While it is frustrating that it has taken so long for the government to clamp down on rogue providers, with many summer holidays already ruined, it is vital that it now takes immediate action to remove any companies not following the rules.”

The cost of NHS Test and Trace tests for international arrivals were reduced on August 13 from £88 to £68 for green or fully vaccinated amber arrivals, and from £170 to £136 for 2 tests for amber arrivals who are not fully vaccinated.

Avi Lasarow, EMEA chief executive of Project Screen by Prenetics – on the government list of test providers, welcomed the clamp down on rogue test providers “who have been abusing the government list and misleading holidaymakers with cheap test offers that don’t exist”.

“The Covid-19 testing market is maturing but travellers are not interested in excuses. They expect service and results without compromise,” he said.

“Responsible test providers wanted to see these cowboys forced out of town so we can restore trust in the testing process for holidaymakers.

“But if we want to make it cheaper and safer for passengers it would be an extra positive step if VAT was axed on all holiday Covid tests.

“By axing VAT on these tests, a family of four flying to Majorca could save £182 – which would pay for the costs of the flights.”

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