The UK competition regulator has said it is exploring what immediate action the government can take to quash the hugely variable prices charged by private providers of Covid PCR tests for travel, after the health secretary, MPs and the travel industry called for an intervention.
In a statement published yesterday, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) laid out the details of its previously announced probe into PCR test pricing, and said it was investigating what “immediate” actions the government health department could take to improve the situation.
“This is a particularly pressing issue just now for families hoping to enjoy a well-earned holiday after such a difficult year, and for those reuniting with friends and relatives overseas,” the CMA’s senior director of consumer protection George Lusty said.
“That is why we are also providing ongoing support to DHSC, including on steps that could be considered in the interim, before the rest of our work on the PCR testing market is concluded.”
The CMA also said it was investigating whether PCR providers should be “subject to enforcement action” for breaching consumer law, and whether there are “structural problems” in the market for PCR tests that affect their pricing and reliability.
It comes after the health secretary Sajid Javid wrote to the CMA at the weekend asking the watchdog to carry out a “rapid high-level” investigation into the pricing of PCR tests for UK holidaymakers, to “stamp out any exploitative behaviour in this market”.
Javid had asked for an immediate review of prices, rather than the watchdog’s standard longer competition reviews – but the CMA had written back to the health secretary saying it would report on its findings “within a month”.
But this is far too slow, according to transport committee chairman Huw Merriman. “We simply cannot wait a month to fix this inflated and broken market,” he said.
“International comparisons clearly demonstrate that consumers are paying over the odds for PCR testing in the UK. The government needs to immediately intervene.
“Better still, ministers could drop blanket PCR tests and move to cheaper, but equally reliable, lateral flow tests with only the small minority of positive cases requiring a more expensive PCR test.
Joining the call for fast action on inflated PCR test prices during peak summer holiday season, Tory MP Henry Smith, chairman of the future of aviation all-party parliamentary group, said private Covid tests should be capped at £40.
Writing in the Telegraph, Smith said: “Every single traveller, including fully vaccinated arrivals from green countries with vanishingly low rates of Covid, are being treated as potential vectors of some dangerous new variant, and must pay through the nose for a battery of tests that on average still cost around £100 per traveller.”
“Government needs to build on recent progress with vaccination exemptions from quarantine by eliminating testing requirements from low-risk countries, and by capping the price of PCR tests to something like £40 – if and where they are still needed.”
In his letter to CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli, Javid wrote: “I know that for too many people the cost of PCR testing can act as a barrier, especially for families who want to travel together.
“We have all experienced enormous disruption to our lives over this pandemic but it is not right if some families experience yet further disruption unnecessarily because of potentially unfair practices in the market for private travel tests.”
Most private PCR tests are priced around £75, but some providers have capitalised on increased demand by charging hundreds of pounds as Brits rush to book last minute summer holidays.
The government website suggests that many two-swab packages for tests on day two and eight are available for £20, as providers are listed in order of lowest to highest price.
But of the top 50 cheapest listed PCR test providers, an investigation by consultancy Fideres found that two thirds had no availability for tests during the summer holiday period, forcing consumers to pay more for others.
The highest price listed on the gov.uk website on Wednesday was £399 – which equates to around £1600 for a family of four travelling during the school holidays.