The testing system for travel is in turmoil again, as Which? finds several firms included on the official list for day two and day eight tests never actually provided tests, while prices shown proved to be unobtainable.
When we looked at the end of last month, the 10 cheapest providers of tests for people entering the UK from an amber list country apparently ranged in price from £60 to £98.
However, our investigation has revealed that none of the test packages below £80 were genuinely obtainable for that price and there were major questions about others.
After we contacted the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) the first three companies were all relisted with higher prices, while three of the others have been removed as it appears that they never provided tests at all.
Looking for cheap tests? We’ve compared refund policies, customer reviews and prices of test providers
Government promised lower prices for testing.
When the government introduced its regime of testing before entry to the UK, it provided a list of private companies in alphabetical order. This proved disastrous for some travellers, as they booked with firms that had chosen names to put themselves at the top of the list. More than one provider was removed after failing customers.
Before the green list announcement on 17 May, the government changed the list so that it could be searched by the cheapest provider. Transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: ‘I will be driving costs down in the next few weeks and removing providers if they’re not playing ball, because I don’t want to see people being ripped off.’
However, the new list has created even more serious problems with companies competing to appear to have the cheapest prices.
Cheap Covid tests that don’t exist.
Towards the end of May, the list included five providers: Expert Medicals, 01 Test, Nationwide Testing, Star Medicals and 1010 Labs that had identically worded refund policies.
They charged £85, £86, £87, £88 and £89, respectively, for the tests you need to return from an amber country.
However, three of those companies, 01 Test, Nationwide Testing and Star Medicals provided little information about their service and didn’t answer calls to the number provided. Expert Medicals told us on the phone that it was about to start working with 01 Test, Nationwide Testing and Star Medicals, but that they hadn’t yet started offering tests.
After we contacted the DHSC to ask why companies who couldn’t provide tests were on the list, 01 Test, Nationwide Testing and Star Medicals were all removed. Their websites now say they’re ‘out of stock’.
The DHSC told us that it wasn’t able to comment on individual providers, but that the lab processing their tests would have had to declare that they met the required standard. This appears to have been one of the UK’s biggest Covid laboratories, Randox.
Randox told us: ‘We did not sell any testing kits to either of the three companies in question, all of which are independent of Randox. All three companies confirmed to DHSC and Randox that they met the relevant criteria for distributing home sample collection kits. As soon as it became evident that the presentation of their services on the DHSC website were not aligned with Randox’s products, Randox immediately terminated its cooperation with the businesses.’
Did firms benefit from lack of competition in the government list?
If you search for tests on returning from day two and day eight countries, you’re now presented with a list by order of the cheapest firms.
However, it appears that five of the top 10 firms may have been connected. As well as similarities in refund policies and price between all five, people connected with Expert Medicals and 1010 Labs may be cousins, according to a report in The Times last month.
Expert Medicals and 1010 Labs are both still listed as among the cheapest on the list, now at £93 and £74, respectively. The latter price is only available if you travel to one of its designated testing sites. Home tests cost £139.
Expert Medicals has a large number of complaints and very poor ratings on Trustpilot. 1010 Labs doesn’t yet appear to have been reviewed anywhere. Its website initially said that it was offering cheap tests at various Premier Inn hotels around the country.
We contacted Premier Inn and it told us that this wasn’t the case. It said that it had been informed by 1010 Labs that the hotel chain had been listed by mistake and that the tests are actually being carried out at Holiday Inn.
We contacted Holiday Inn and it also said that it wasn’t aware of the firm, but said that some franchise hotels may have agreed to work with it.
It’s unclear what relationship 1010 Labs and Expert Medicals have with each other or with the three companies that were removed from the list. We have contacted them, but haven’t received a response.
Inaccurate government price list for Covid tests
When we first looked at the list for returning from amber countries on 25 May, the three cheapest providers appeared to be Biograd Diagnostics (£60), Screen4 (£60) and Book a Travel Test (£79.99). But those were either prices for booking one test or for booking a single test carried out in a clinic, rather than sent to your home. Yet the government page clearly states that the information and providers are for day two and day eight amber list test packages.
After we contacted the DHSC, those companies now list tests for £100 (Biograd Diagnostics), £120 (Screen4) and £160 (Book a Travel Test) and no longer appear in the top 10 cheapest.
Both Biograd Diagnostics and Screen4 told us that the issue is with the way the DHSC recorded price information. Screen4 said that it had contacted the DHSC itself when it became aware of the problem
Biograd Diagnostics told us that it had listed the price for the amber countries two-test package as £100 and also suggested that the issue may have been a mistake by the DHSC.
Book a Travel Test said: ‘A number of companies including ourselves were initially confused by the government listing forms. No one can deny that Covid has created many challenges. We have gone to great lengths to support travelers, however, we aren’t immune to costs and have had to navigate fluctuating charges from labs.’
Book a Travel Test’s About Us page includes a section headlined ‘Who we are’ with photos of three individuals, supposedly called Jennifer Smith, Amy Andrews and Al Haser, who it describes as ‘our experts’.
But a Google image search reveals that the three photos are just stock images that come with the website builder. It’s unclear who is actually behind the company. We contacted Book a Travel Test again after we noticed the discrepancy, but haven’t received a reply, although it has since removed the pictures.
How can I get a cheap day two and day eight Covid test?
It’s extremely difficult for travellers to establish whether the providers on the government’s list are reliable. The list changed substantially three times during the course of one day at the end of last month.
There is little information except price, and even that isn’t guaranteed to be correct. The official providers page says: ‘The final price you pay could be different to the displayed price.’
Consumers have to do their own research and rely on reviews and comments online, which themselves can be open to manipulation and may not be reliable.
Of the cheaper providers, Testing for All, for example, has largely good reviews and it is relatively inexpensive at £104, including postage.
They have told us that they limit how many tests they provide, which means that it’s easier for a good service to be maintained. It also means, unfortunately, that tests won’t necessarily be available. It’s important to do your research and not assume that the price you see on the government website is correct.