More than 80 private Covid-19 testing companies could lose government approval to sell PCR travel tests following a review by ministers into misleading costs from “cowboy” providers.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said on Monday that 82 providers have been issued a two-strike warning for displaying lower prices on the gov.uk site than are available at the point of checkout, making up about 18 per cent of the companies on the government’s approved list.
The move comes amid mounting concerns that the Covid testing regime for people returning to England is on the brink of collapse, after ministers decided to leave provision to the private sector.
The government has faced pressure to intervene amid allegations of exploitative behaviour and excessive pricing in the private testing market.
The DHSC said the true costs of the tests have now been updated and that companies will be removed if they are found to advertise misleading prices again.
A further 57 companies have been removed from the list as they no longer exist or do not provide tests for people to use on day two and day eight after returning from many foreign countries.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, launched a review into pricing and service standards of all test providers this month after complaints from users about the expense and pressure to act from MPs.
Announcing the outcome on Monday, 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.”
The NHS official test and trace package for international arrivals has been reduced from £88 to £68 for green or fully vaccinated amber arrivals, and from £170 to £136 for two tests for amber arrivals who are not fully vaccinated.
Analysis by the Guardian suggests passengers to the UK have spent at least £500m on PCR Covid-19 tests from private companies since mid-May, but in some cases the NHS has been saddled with extra costs when firms fail to deliver them.
All travellers returning from green- and amber-list countries must take a test before they depart for the UK, and a further PCR test on their second day after arriving home. With PCR tests costing upwards of £50 each, households are paying as much as £200 for day-two kits.
Those who have not been fully vaccinated must also self-isolate and take a test on day eight if they visited an amber-list country. The tests have to be booked with private firms listed on the gov.uk website.