Watchdog urges clampdown on PCR testing market

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has called on the government to intervene in the PCR testing market and tighten up rules for providers.

“A combination of up-front regulation, monitoring and wider sanctions is needed,” it said in a statement.

The regulator has been investigating the market over past month after consumer and travel trade complaints about pricing and poor service.

It has issued eight recommendations to health secretary Sajid Javid, warning that it has found “features of the PCR testing market which mean competition alone will not deliver the right outcomes for consumers”.

It said: “There is a risk of a ‘race to the bottom’, in which providers compete on grounds other than high clinical quality and travellers end up losing out.”

In August, the CMA wrote an open letter to all PCR test providers warning them to stay on the right side of consumer law.

And on September 3, it launched an investigation into Expert Medicals and investigations into other companies are being considered.

However, its review found that “even with the enforcement of consumer protection law, competition cannot be guaranteed to deliver the right outcomes for consumers in the PCR testing market”.

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Andrea Coscelli, CMA chief executive, 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.

“Recent weeks have underlined that we will not hesitate to take action against any PCR test provider we suspect is breaking the law and exploiting their customers.

“However, competition alone will not do the job, even when backed by enforcement of consumer law.

“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.”

Among its recommendations to government are:

• Creating a one-stop shop list of quality, approved test providers by significantly improving the basic standards to qualify for inclusion and remaining on the GOV.UK list.

• Introducing a comprehensive monitoring and enforcement programme to ensure providers on the GOV.UK list meet these basic standards and rules, and swiftly removing and sanctioning those firms that don’t.

• Improving the provider listings on GOV.UK so consumers get the information they need to compare providers properly and find the best deals for them.

• Developing the NHS Test and Trace travel test as a benchmark for quality and price to drive higher standards and more competition across the sector.

• Monitoring prices and costs on an ongoing basis, in case price reductions are not seen on the back of other measures.

Dale Keller, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BAR UK) commented on Twitter: “A step forward. And now to address policy as to whether most of these tests serve a public health benefit.”

And the International Air Transport Association (Iata) tweeted: “Good to see @CMAgovUK calling out how customers are being ripped off by #COVID #travel #testing. Now its time for @grantshapps and @sajidjavid to urgently revise the UK’s travel policy and remove testing for vaccinated travellers.”

Tim Alderslade, chief of Airlines UK, said: “The UK is alone in Europe in putting fully vaccinated travellers at the mercy of a dysfunctional private testing market that – as the CMA has found – is charging rip-off prices and too frequently delivering a poor service.

“What’s more, the Government is not even using PCR testing for the purpose it was intended – genomic sequencing – so it offers nothing for public health whilst costing passengers millions of pounds.

“Countries like France and Spain have recovered much faster by looking at the science and removing expensive and burdensome PCR testing for the fully jabbed. By contrast, travel from the UK remains in the doldrums and will not recover unless we see a step-change in government approach.

“With furlough support due to stop at the end of the month and UK aviation seeing a recovery in name only, something will have to give, and we either open up properly by getting rid of this testing regime for the fully vaccinated or our global connectivity and many thousands of jobs will be at risk.”

Avi Lasarow, EMEA chief executive of Project Screen by Prenetics – which is on the government list of test providers, welcomed the CMA’s report, saying: “Hopefully this will drive the cowboys out of town. Many of the recommendations are ones that Prenetics and other leading providers submitted to the CMA and we are pleased to see they’ve been accepted.

“Holiday PCR testing will be a way of life for travellers for some time to come as we need to protect the UK from new variants entering the country.

“However, the government could help travellers even more by abolishing VAT on holiday PCR tests so they can travel safer and cheaper.”

Picture by anyaivanova/Shutterstock

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