The emergence of the potentially dangerous Omicron coronavirus variant has caused global panic, with borders clamped shut and strict rules put in place for quarantine, testing and travel. But plans to control the new variant have been heavily criticised, and calls for greater regulation on testing firms are ramping up.
Under new rules, passengers are required to have a negative PCR test to enter the country, and further PCR testing after arrival.
Free PCR testing on the NHS isn’t permitted for use with travel; private firms must be used.
Prices vary for private testing, but recent reports show some firms have dramatically hiked prices in line with new restrictions, despite Government promises to crack down on profiteering of this nature.
A report first published in the Times showed PCR testing firms offering tests for as little as 30p to get to the top of the list of providers advertised by the Government for passengers looking to book a post-arrival PCR test.
After clicking the link on the government website to book a test with the firm, however, the 30p test was unavailable and the next cheapest cost £59, almost 200 times as expensive.
Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh called out dozens of firms on the Government website, which are now charging over £100 for a single PCR test.
Writing for Politico’s Playbook, Alex Wickham said: “Private companies abusing the system and blatantly profiteering from testing have been a feature of the government’s health and travel policies for the past six months, and no one in Whitehall has shown the slightest interest in doing anything about it.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid is now coming under intense pressure to crack down on firms “conning” customers.
When the practice of testing price hikes emerged in the summer, Mr Javid ordered officials to remove companies from the Government’s website who were attempting to manipulate the list.
After the new rules were introduced last week, the health secretary again promised MPs that companies who broke the rules would be “delisted”, but this has yet to manifest.
Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 backbench group of Tory MPs, said: “With these new testing requirements being introduced it is essential that the government acts quickly to establish the credibility and reliability of the companies involved.
“Passengers deserve better than the testing chaos that was experienced in the summer.”
The consumer group Which? urged the Government to regulate the testing market to protect passengers.
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Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “The Government must take steps to properly regulate the marketplace and implement the Competition and Markets Authority recommendations so that passengers can have confidence that they’re booking with a provider they can trust.”
Paul Charles, chief executive of The PC Agency, a travel consultancy, said: “The Government promised a clampdown on the Wild West tactics by test providers.
“Yet little seems to have been done and promises have been broken.”
The Department for Health and Social Care said it was working with the UK Health Security Agency to monitor the Government’s list of approved providers.
The introduction of compulsory PCR tests for everyone arriving in the UK has been described as a “huge blow” for the travel industry.
Abta, the trade association for tour operators and travel agents in the UK, said the added cost of testing for all arrivals will have an impact on customer demand for holidays, adding pressure to an industry that has been among the “hardest hit” during the pandemic.
An Abta spokesperson said: “While Abta understands that this is a rapidly evolving situation and public health must come first, the decision to require all arrivals to take a PCR test and self-isolate until a negative result is returned is a huge blow for travel businesses, many of whom were only just starting to get back on their feet after 20 months of severe restrictions.
“These changes will add cost to people’s holidays, which will undoubtedly impact consumer demand and hold back the industry’s recovery, so it’s vital that this decision is kept under careful review and restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme.
“The Government must also now consider offering tailored support for travel businesses, which have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic.”