Listings with misleading pricing information and firms that did not offer testing services at all have been allowed to appear on the government’s approved list of Covid test providers for travel, an investigation found.
Consumer watchdog Which? looked at the 10 cheapest providers of tests for people entering the UK from an amber list country at the end of May, with prices being listed between £60 to £98.
However, several tests listed among the cheapest providers turned out to be much more expensive than their initial listings suggested, while others were simply unobtainable.
On May 25, the three cheapest providers on the list for entry into the UK appeared to be Biograd Diagnostics (£60), Screen4 (£60) and Book A Travel Test (£79.99). But on further inspection, it transpired that these prices were either for booking one at-home test, or for booking a single test carried out in a clinic, rather than both Day 2 and Day 8 tests that are required for returning from an amber list country.
Which? said that, after it contacted the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the prices for tests from these providers were amended to show prices ranging from £100 to £160, and the three companies no longer appeared in the top 10 cheapest providers.
Both Biograd Diagnostics and Screen4 told Which? that there was an issue with how the DHSC recorded price information, suggesting that the incorrect prices had been listed by DHSC. Since then, Which? has seen other companies jump to the top of the government’s list by appearing to be among the cheapest, with the price for just one test quoted, rather than the two needed.
Which? also uncovered test providers listed on the government’s website that were not actually offering testing services at the time they were listed.
At the beginning of June, the list included five providers – 01 Test, 1010 Labs, Expert Medicals, Nationwide Testing, and Star Medicals – that appeared to be linked, with almost identically worded refund policies, and Expert Medicals telling Which? they were due to begin working with three of the four other labs, raising questions about competition between providers and the impact on consumers’ ability to make informed choices.
The labs claimed to charge between £85 and £89 for the tests needed to return from an amber country.
However, three of those companies – 01 Test, Nationwide Testing and Star Medicals – provided little detail about their services, did not answer calls to the numbers they provided. Expert Medicals told Which? that while it was due to start working with them, the companies had not yet started offering tests.
After Which? asked DHSC why companies that couldn’t yet provide tests were on the list, 01 Test, Nationwide Testing and Star Medicals were all subsequently removed.
When Which? checked again in the week beginning June 7, Expert Medicals and 1010 Labs were both still listed among the cheapest on the list, at £93 and £79 respectively. However, the £79 1010 Labs listing was only for a single test, rather than both tests required for return from an amber list country.
Expert Medicals also had a large number of complaints and very poor ratings on Trustpilot, while 1010 Labs had not yet appeared to have been reviewed anywhere at the time of the investigation, and was also found to be listing incorrect information on its website.
The 1010 Labs website initially said that it was offering cheap tests at various Premier Inn hotels around the country, but when Which? contacted Premier Inn, it told the consumer champion that this was not the case.
Premier Inn said it had been informed by 1010 Labs that the hotel chain had been listed by mistake, and that the tests are actually being carried out at Holiday Inns.
Which? contacted Holiday Inn, which also said that it was not aware of the firm. However, it did say that some franchise hotels may have agreed to work with the test provider.
The watchdog said: “Taken together, these issues highlight serious flaws with the government’s current testing for travel system, with a clear lack of regulatory oversight that is desperately needed before mass travel resumes.
“Which? is calling for the government to not only explore options for reducing the cost of testing across the board, through solutions such as introducing a price cap as other countries in Europe have done, but to urgently ensure all providers are accredited, that it is providing proper oversight of the companies listed on its website, and that companies are providing up to date, accurate and accessible information about the tests available and their relevant costs.”
Rory Boland, Which? Travel editor, commented: “Travellers risk being left at the mercy of rogue operators who, at best, attempt to profiteer [from] those looking for testing services to allow them to travel, and at worst, risk leaving them out of pocket for services that don’t even exist.
“The government needs to urgently sort out these problems before mass travel resumes, or it will create chaos for travellers who have to rely on the system.”
Responses to Which? findings
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We carefully monitor issues raised by the public and raise complaints with private test providers directly. The government regularly evaluates all providers’ performance, including their delivery and test turnaround times.
“Providers who do not meet the minimum standards set by DHSC and reviewed by the independent UK Accreditation Service (UKAS), or where our monitoring highlights concerns about their customer service performance, are removed from the gov.uk travel test list. Additionally, providers may not appear on the list where they are temporarily out of stock.”
A Biograd Diagnostics spokesperson said: “On the DHSC website we list the cost of a single D2 test as £50 and the package of two tests as £100. This has not changed in recent times – previously it was much higher but as we have become more established and after discussions with DHSC, who were keen to see the cost of tests come down, we decided to reduce the costs.
“The second source of information is our own website – we list the cost of tests performed in our own clinics as £60 per test. Postal tests on our website remain at £50. These costs have not changed and are unlikely to change in the near future. This does make us one of the cheapest private providers in the marketplace.”
A Screen4 spokesperson said, regarding its listing on the government’s website: “There are differences in the terminology used – ours are described as Self Swab or Clinic Test and not ‘At Home unsupervised’. Our test was initially listed as this £60 cost on the amber list by mistake (by the DHSC). We queried the terminology with the DHSC and they have yet to amend.
“We do not and have never tried to manipulate the listings and we have tried to provide a competitive and reliable service with clearly stated capacity of tests available.”
A Book A Travel Test spokesperson said: “A number of companies including ourselves were initially confused by the government listing forms. No one can deny that Covid has created many challenges.
“We have gone to great lengths to support travellers, however, we are not immune to costs and have had to navigate fluctuating charges from labs. We remain committed to doing all we can to deliver an excellent service to travellers during this difficult time.”
Expert Medicals and 1010 Labs did not respond to official requests for comment.