Give holidaymakers ‘at cost’ NHS Covid tests to beat scams, urge senior conservatives

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The problems come from the government website. Here, travelers are confronted with a list of more than 400 test providers. The algorithm which presumably determines their position on the list has obviously been played. Near the top are companies whose names rank very well on alphabetically ordered lists, such as ++ 0044 COVID Test. These companies seem to charge low prices (again, as a way to rank very high): £ 20 is the going rate.

But it often turns out, much later in the booking process, that these “good deals” are either totally unavailable or require travel to an inaccessible or remote location. The government website does more than stop vendors from engaging in such cynical practices; he rewarded them with the best rankings.

Travelers could reasonably assume that vendors listed on a government website would at least be required to meet minimum standards of customer service. Rather, a disclaimer tells them to “do your own research”.

The government decides who is on the list. He should have used that power to clean it up. And now he should do it urgently. The CMA recommended, as a condition of continued listing, higher standards and respect for consumer law.

Fair prices must be applied

But it lacks details: these standards should explicitly include the liability of consumers’ costs when test results are late; fair prices; and a telephone line and e-mail address with minimum response time. Surprisingly, none of these standards seem to apply yet.

The CMA Council also recommended better presentation of information on the site, to help travelers judge the best providers. Again, it provides few details. But customer reviews, performance data (e.g. proportion of tests completed on time), and complaint rates should all now be visible on the government website.

The CMA also recommended that the government develop its own displacement tests and use them as a benchmark for raising standards. For this to be effective, the government must start promoting it. They do the opposite. Unacceptably, the service is listed (among over 400 others) obscurely as “CTM NHS T&T”.

Only a fluke or an inside knowledge would penetrate the “secret” that it even exists. The government’s own testing regime should provide a reasonably priced safety net that the consumer can count on, which is necessary in part because the testing regime may still change in the months to come.

CMA’s opinion does not reflect its own substandard performance. Problems were widely reported from April. He could have moved much sooner with warning letters or, if possible, starting a test case, or both. Instead, he appears to have done little more than provide discreet advice to the government, with negligible deterrent value.

And he still appears to be a reluctant participant in the clean-up: he should now monitor the conditions of the providers; clarify which business practices it considers illegal; and, if possible, take legal action against the worst providers. The government should also ask the CMA to move this file forward as a matter of urgency.

Bring back the Covid working group

The government should also ask the CMA to immediately reconstitute its Covid task force, as well as the online complaint form it has been promoting. Complaints provide other crucial information for the government to find out what is going on in the market and to respond quickly to abuses.

The task force did a good job at the start of the Covid crisis 18 months ago. Inexplicably, it has been closed: had it been in place, this scandal probably would not have developed, and certainly not on such a scale.

Until now, it was too little, too late. Parliament must act. For example, special committees could demand a detailed progress report from the government and the CMA on the implementation of the recommendations within a few weeks.

And an autopsy is probably warranted. Such an investigation can have a chilling effect on some of the current misconduct. And it can at least give the public more confidence that such a scandal will not happen again.

There is a case for a price cap. Price caps can be anti-competitive. However, the abuses in this market are too shocking to be allowed to persist. Tourist travel and business travel are expected to pick up, perhaps soon. Without firm action, another travel testing scandal looms. If so, the audience won’t be so charitable.


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