Covid testing industry launches body to self-regulate ‘Wild West’ market for PCR swabs amid No10’s crackdown on ‘exploitative’ firms

  • New body promises to put a stop to unfair, late, and overpriced Covid travel tests
  • It comes after the Government promised to crackdown on ‘Covid cowboys’
  • However one member of the new group appears to be in breach of its own rules 

 A new coalition of Covid test providers has promised to create a ‘trustworthy’ list of companies Britons can rely on for accurate, timely and fairly priced swabs. 

The Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation (LTIO) — made up of six providers— said it will self-regulate testing clinics.

It will offer a kitemark to firms which demonstrate their ‘trustworthy testing services’, with the goal of raising the standards of the market.

The formation of LTIO comes after vows from Government last month to crackdown on the PCR test market, which was likened to the ‘Wild West’, with firms labelled by ministers as  ‘acting like cowboys’ by advertising misleading prices on the Government websites.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the cost of PCR tests can be ‘a barrier’ and insisted consumers and families need to be protected from ‘exploitative practices’.

A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for Covid have been required for travellers both coming and returning to the UK but concerns have been raised that some unscrupulous testing providers have been taking advantage of holiday makers. The new Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation says it will help to put a stop to these practices. 

No10’s consumer watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), earlier this month advised the Government to create a one-stop shop list of approved test providers.

In one of eight recommendations the CMA advised doing this by ‘improving the basic standards to qualify for inclusion and remaining on the gov.uk list’.

PCR tests have been a key part of the Government’s Covid travel rules, with travellers requiring them on day two and sometimes day eight of their return to the UK with prices for tests previously reaching as high as £400. 

The LTIO vowed to create a ‘gold standard accreditation process and kitemark to provide consumer certainty’.

What the Competition and Markets Authority told Covid test providers to do

  • PCR test providers should not focus their advertising on cheap tests which are only available in very small quantities or not at all. This includes pricing information provided to GOV.UK or other websites
  • Prices shown should be the total cost, including all compulsory charges (i.e. charges which consumers cannot avoid)
  • Any requirements or particular steps a consumer must take to obtain their test or results, for example having to attend a particular location at a particular time, should be clearly disclosed in advertising and upfront on provider’s websites
  • Terms and conditions used by PCR test providers must be fair
  • Terms and conditions should be clear and easy to find, and should not hide important information in the ‘small print’
  • PCR test providers should not use terms which remove or limit their liability to consumers where the provider is at fault and things go wrong
  •  Information on the timescales for receiving tests and results should be honest, accurate and clear
  • PCR test providers should also ensure that PCR tests and results are provided within advertised timescales
  • PCR test providers should ensure any terms and conditions or policies on cancellations and refunds are fair and reflect consumers’ statutory rights
  • PCR test providers should ensure that they provide an adequate level of customer service

Source: Competition and Markets Authority

Only providers which follow a code of conduct based on the letter the CMA sent out can get the kitemark. Providers must also score 3.5 or above on the independent Trustpilot rating website.

The six founding firms are: BioGrad, Cignpost Diagnostics/ExpressTest, Halo Verify, Medical Diagnosis, Project Screen by Prenetics and Qured.

The LTIO said it will work with the Government to ensure that the UK industry has the world’s ‘highest ethical and professional standards’.

The body’s independent director Francis Ingham said: ‘The laboratory and testing industry has an important part to play in helping Britain navigate successfully through the pandemic.

‘This new professional body is designed to set, enforce, and raise the standards of service for our customers.

‘By establishing a gold standard kitemark and an independently-enforced Code of Conduct, we believe we can raise the standards across the industry.

‘The public has a right to expect testing companies to provide accurate, timely and competitively priced services and that is what the LTIO aims to achieve.’

But doubts could already be cast on the body’s credibility, with BioGrad Diagnostics currently having a 3.4 rating on Trustpilot, just below the group’s cut off.

BioGrad Diagnostics was contacted for comment but did not respond by the time of publication. 

Rory Boland, travel editor of consumer rights organisation Which?, said the LTIO will ‘ultimately be judged on whether this delivers meaningful improvements for travellers’. 

‘Some of the companies involved in this new body have been subject to repeat complaints from consumers and their services rated as little better than average, which is hardly a gold standard,’ he said.

‘The government must implement the CMA’s full range of recommendations for fixing the testing market, so that consumers can travel with confidence.’ 

A Department of Health spokesperson told MailOnline no testing company should be taking advantage of British holidaymakers.

‘We are clear that it is completely unacceptable for any private testing companies to take advantage of holidaymakers and we are taking action to clamp down on poor performance and misleading prices,’ they said.

‘It is right that the industry takes action to ensure the public gets the testing service it deserves and we welcome the launch of a new trade association for Covid testing companies and laboratories.’

The launch comes ahead of a relaxation of travel testing requirements in England which will see people who are fully vaccinated no longer need a pre-departure test before returning from non-red list destinations.

From the end of October, they will also be able to replace the day two PCR test with a cheaper lateral flow test.

Fully vaccinated travellers will soon be able to replace the PCR test with a cheaper later flow test when they arrive or return to the UK. They will only need to take a PCR test if the lateral flow test comes back positive. Unvaccinated passengers will still need to take PCR tests on day 2 and day 8 after their arrival. 

What are the new travel rules from October 4 and how do they compare to the current traffic light system? 

As of October 4, the Government’s travel traffic light system is being replaced with a simplified two-tier ‘go/no-go’ scheme. 

There will be a ‘red list’ of banned countries and a ‘rest of the world’ list for everywhere else.

Travel to and from nations in the ‘rest of the world’ list will be easier but there will be different rules depending on vaccination status. 

This is how the new system will work: 

Travel from the ‘rest of the world’ if you are fully vaccinated

Travellers must book and pay for a day two coronavirus test to be taken after arriving back in England.

They do not need to take a pre-departure test before coming back to the country or take a day eight test. There is no quarantine requirement – assuming the day two test is negative.

Travel from the ‘rest of the world’ if you are not fully vaccinated

Travellers must take a pre-departure coronavirus test before coming back to England. 

They must also book and pay for a day two and day eight test. 

After arriving in England they must quarantine at home for 10 days.

Travel from red list countries

Normal travel from these countries remains banned and only UK nationals can return from them.

Travellers must take a pre-departure test. They must also book and pay for a Government-backed quarantine hotel package.

The stay in hotel quarantine will cost more than £2,000 and will involve two tests.

The ‘red list’ rules apply regardless of vaccination status. 

WHAT IS CURRENTLY IN PLACE? 

RED: Travel to the UK from a red list country is banned for non-UK nationals. Britons returning to the UK must take a pre-departure test and book a ten-day stay in hotel quarantine including tests at a cost of £1,750. Countries include Brazil, Turkey, Bangladesh and South Africa.

AMBER: A pre-departure test is required before heading to Britain while non-vaccinated people have to quarantine for ten days at home and book tests on day two and day 8. They can also pay for a day 5 test under the ‘test to release’ scheme. The fully-vaccinated do not have to isolate but they do have to book a day 2 test.  Countries include Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. 

GREEN WATCHLIST: This is a category for countries which are at risk of losing their green status (see below). Countries include Barbados, Croatia and Israel.

GREEN: Returning travellers must take a pre-departure test and book a day two test as well. Quarantine is not required for anyone unless the test is positive. Countries include Bulgaria, Canada , Iceland and Malta.

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