Watchdog probes ‘wild west’ of Covid travel tests with most of the cheapest options listed on the government website unavailable to holidaymakers

  • Cheapest two-swab test required for travelling to amber list countries costs £78
  • Advertising Standards Authority is investigating after receiving complaints
  • Two thirds of the cheapest options on the Government website are unavailable

The British advertising watchdog is probing the ‘wild west’ market place of Covid travel tests after it was found most of the cheaper swabs listed on the Government’s website are not available to customers.

Private companies offering tests are listed on the site, with the lowest priced at supposedly selling for £23.

But analysis of the first 50 least costly options shows two thirds could not be ordered or appointments for on-site tests were not available until September.

And now the Advertising Standards Authority is investigating after receiving a host of complaints from holidaymakers. 

The costing fiasco comes as ministers were slammed for causing quarantine confusion with plans for a danger list of countries that could see destinations like Spain and Italy suddenly move to red.

Plans for an ‘amber watch list’ would mean destinations could be moved to the no-go red list at a moment’s notice, leaving thousands of Brits could be left out of pocket if they are unable to cancel their holiday plans.

The British advertising watchdog is probing the ‘wild west’ market place of Covid travel tests

Private companies offering tests are listed on the Government’s website, with the lowest priced at supposedly selling for £23 — but two thirds of the cheapest options are not available

Even if they are allowed to travel, the cheapest two-swab postal kit — a requirement for people returning from amber list countries — costs £78, according to analysis by the consultancy firm Fideres. 

Unvaccinated holidaymakers from England have to have a test before travelling and book two PCR tests on reentry to the country during a 10-day quarantine if they want to go to an amber list country. 

Vaccinated travellers do not have to quarantine but still require a test two days after reentering the country.

English travellers have to fork out for tests but in Wales they are free and supplied by the NHS.

And Fideres found the companies advertising pay-for tests near the top of the Government’s website — which is ranked on price — have the largest gap between advertised and real prices.

Paul Vella, an associate at Fideres, told The Guardian: ‘The Government is reporting prices that are a small fraction of what most consumers pay, without actually checking if these low prices are available.

‘Not only does this mislead consumers, it can actually steer them into using more expensive providers.’

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We do not endorse or recommend any private Covid-19 test provider. 

‘All private providers must meet the minimum required standards and each of them are reviewed by the independent United Kingdom Accreditation Service.

‘The government carefully monitors issues raised by the public and takes rapid action with companies where necessary, giving providers a five-day warning if their service is inadequate and if they do not rectify it, removing them from the appropriate travel test list.’

It comes as research by Post Office Travel Money found big differences in the cost of tourist staples at resorts across Europe.

Portugal’s Algarve was the cheapest out of the Eurozone destinations studied, due to average prices such as £1.57 for an ice-cream, £1.31 for a bottle or can of Coca-Cola, and £43.09 for a three-course family meal including wine and soft drinks.

UK FACES A ‘RISKY’ AUTUMN BECAUSE FOREIGN HOLIDAYS AND RETURN OF STUDENTS 

A document dated July 14 stated the importance of global surveillance on the emergence of new variants and added: ‘Any increase in foreign travel over the summer and the return of international students to universities in the autumn is of particular concern.’

In the same document from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group (SPI-M-O), experts warned that September and October ‘will be a particularly risky point in the trajectory of the epidemic’.

It states that ‘significant pressures on healthcare could be seen’ if more normal behaviours, following the lifting of many restrictions, coincide with the return of schools and universities.

Other bargain destinations include the Portuguese island of Madeira, Paphos, in Cyprus, Costa del Sol, in Spain, and the Spanish island of Majorca.

The overall basket of goods analysed was more than twice as expensive in Nice, southern France, compared with the Algarve.

Typical prices in Nice include £3.06 for an ice-cream, £5.60 for a bottle of beer at a bar or cafe, and £14.86 for a half-day sun lounger rental. 

Nick Boden, head of Post Office Travel Money, said: ‘After such a long wait, it is understandable that families want to head to European beach resorts for some summer sun.

‘However, the big variations we found between costs in European resorts means it will pay dividends to do some homework before leaving home to get a realistic view of the holiday cash needed in the resorts they are considering.’

The probe into the price of Covid tests comes as Mr Shapps came under pressure to allow more quarantine-free travelling. 

Trade association Abta wants more locations added to the green list, testing requirements eased, and tailored financial support for the industry.

It also questioned the recent decisions to remove the quarantine exemption for fully-vaccinated travellers returning from France, and to put Spain’s Balearic Islands on the amber list.

Since May, quarantine and testing requirements have been determined by whether a person is entering the UK from a green, amber or red list location.

The next major update on which country is on which list will take place around August 4.

But the Department for Transport has committed to holding several ‘formal reviews’ of the rules for each list, with the next due ‘no later than July 31’.

People returning from a green destination are not required to self-isolate, but only a handful of major European summer hotspots are in that tier.

Spain, Italy and Greece are among the countries on the amber list.

Those returning from an amber country must quarantine at home for 10 days unless they have had both doses of a coronavirus vaccine.

Abta’s director of public affairs Luke Petherbridge said: ‘While there have been some positive developments in recent weeks – most notably that people who have received both vaccinations through the NHS don’t need to quarantine when returning from amber countries – the industry continues to suffer setbacks like the recent changes we have seen to France and the Balearics.

The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said that England’s R rate was now thought to be between 1.1 and 1.4, but it was a varied picture across the country. The R rate was estimated to be the highest in the East (1.1 to 1.5), followed by London, the South East and the South West (all 1.2 to 1.5). Following these regions was the Midlands (1.1 to 1.4), the North East and Yorkshire (1.1 to 1.3) and the North West (1 to 1.2)

‘Every unexpected change or unexplained decision puts another dent in consumer confidence, which is already fragile.’

He added: ‘It is increasingly clear that the Government is failing to provide the predictability and stability required to rebuild consumer confidence and bring about the necessary conditions for a recovery.

‘The Government must take action to support the travel industry, which is not only important in terms of jobs and contributions to the economy, but also the UK’s wider recovery from the pandemic.

‘We’re a global nation and our international connectivity underpins this.’

EasyJet said this weekend would be its busiest of the year as many families depart on overseas trips at the start of school holidays.

The airline expects to carry more than 135,000 passengers from the UK to destinations across Europe.

Meanwhile, Jet2.com announced it has added more flights to Malta and the Portuguese island of Madeira – which are both on the green list – in September and October due to strong demand.

Chief executive Steve Heapy said: ‘It is clear that autumn breaks are in demand this year, so we have responded to that trend.’

‘You would have to be crackers to book a holiday’: Fury at travel chaos as Spain, France and Italy face going on another NEW danger list 

Ministers have been condemned for causing quarantine confusion as raging battle has erupted in the cabinet over plans for a danger list of countries that could see destinations like Spain and Italy suddenly move to red.

The plans for a new ‘amber watch list’ sparked outrage in Whitehall as some ministers believe it could ruin the holiday hopes of millions of Britons.

The idea, which was agreed in principle this week, would see holidaymakers warned that while they are abroad certain amber countries could go straight on to the red list. 

This would leave them facing compulsory hotel quarantine on their return, at a cost of £1,750 a head.

Spain and Italy both featured in talks about countries that could be put into the new category – as soon as next week – amid fears about the Beta variant, which first emerged in South Africa. 

Senior ministers, including Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, are said to have reservations about imposing further disruption on the beleaguered travel sector.

Mr Shapps urged people to ‘ignore speculation’ ahead of decisions next week. But behind the scenes a battle is raging.

One Whitehall source said: ‘You would have to be crackers to book a holiday to a place knowing that it could go on to the red list at any moment.

‘If you have already booked to go there you are going to spend your whole holiday worrying whether you are going to have to make a dash to the airport to get home.

‘The decision next week will basically be in place for August. It is peak holiday season – are we really going to cause that much disruption to this many people?’

Another source said that the Treasury had warned ministers to ‘stop messing about with travel’.

Some ministers doubt whether it is even possible to put Spain on the red list this summer, given the limited amount of hotel quarantine capacity in the UK.

There was a glimmer of hope that France could be released from the ‘amber-plus’ list, meaning the fully vaccinated will finally be able to return to the UK without the need to quarantine.

But it could still go into the amber watch category.

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