A slew of the cheapest deals on PCR tests have been removed from the government website amid concerns travellers are being misled by companies advertising the coronavirus testing service for less than a £1.
It is understood officials acted on complaints from within the industry, after concerns that certain providers were manipulating the rankings. Private companies offering day 2 tests for travellers are listed on a government website for consumers to search.
At the weekend ministers reintroduced PCR tests for travellers because of concern about the Omicron variant of the virus. As a result anyone returning to the UK from abroad must take a test by the end of the second day after arrival.
The Guardian queried how the list was being managed after a sample taken from the website on Tuesday showed tens of deals priced at £1 or less from companies including !!++0044 Tests and !Covid Testing Direct.com. The list of 450 companies is in price order so those offering the cheapest deals are at the top.
However, the top ranking deals are not suitable for most travellers as they are often in just one location, on limited dates and only available to those who could attend in person.
For example A YCT MedLabs has a 75p day 2 test offer but there are no test slots at its Maidstone site available in December or January. !!++0044 Tests, which is no longer at the top of the rankings, had £1 tests available but only in Kendal in Cumbria.
By Thursday morning the majority of these promotions were no longer listed with the number of deals at £1 or less reduced to just two, with 14 fewer deals available.
The list is managed by the UK Health Security Agency and a spokesperson said: “We regularly audit the providers listed on gov.uk and remove providers when they are promoting misleading test prices.”
In the summer, Competition and Markets Authority sent an open letter to PCR test providers warning that a range of harmful practices, including advertising cheap tests that are only available in very small quantities or not at all, could breach consumer protection law.
Francis Ingham, the independent director of the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation (LTIO), a trade association, welcomed the move and said it would increase confidence in testing. He suggested ultra cheap deals were “too good to be true”. “It’s only if you go to a certain part of the country on a certain time on a certain day, otherwise it isn’t available.”
Ingham said the way the travel testing system was being managed by the government meant it was constantly being “played” by companies and urged people to look for the LTIO’s Kitemark when booking. Its members speak for 80% of the country’s testing capability.
“There’s a code of conduct that says the prices they advertise are accurate. They’re transparent about the process and the terms and conditions,” he added.
Avi Lasarow, at the testing firm Project Screen by Prenetics, which is LTIO member, said low-priced offers were a “false mechanic to convince folks to go to their websites” because once the person was on the website “they were more likely buy a more expensive test”.
He suggested price information should be removed altogether. “That way consumers can see an approved list of providers and it’s up to them to navigate the list to find the one that suits them best.”
YCT MedLabs said its 75p products were incentives for the local community and the sudden changes at the weekend meant all the tests available for December had been snapped up. “We intend to release more slots however you’ll appreciate these are at a loss and also need to consider the staffing on the site, which is currently our only site at the moment, as we are only a small provider,” the company said.
The Guardian approached !!++0044 Tests, and !Covid Testing Direct for comment.