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Javid pledges crackdown on ‘cowboy’ Covid test providers

Coronavirus pandemic updates

Health secretary Sajid Javid on Friday promised to crack down on “cowboy” companies providing coronavirus tests for Britons travelling overseas as he launched an urgent review of misleading prices following pressure from MPs and industry.

Javid said his department will launch a “rapid internal review of the pricing and service standards” of private test providers in an effort to stop companies misleading people by promising cheaper deals than they deliver.

“Too many providers are acting like cowboys and that needs to stop,” he added. “The public should be allowed to enjoy their summer holidays without having to face excessive costs or anxiety.”

The government has been under mounting pressure to move quickly to cut the cost of travel testing, amid warnings that high and opaque prices have put people off going on overseas holidays or visiting friends and family abroad.

Javid admitted the cost of testing had been a “barrier” to people’s summer holidays, but said he was “determined to protect consumers and hardworking families from exploitative practices”.

Too many providers are acting like cowboys and that needs to stop

Under the rules, anyone arriving in the UK from abroad must take at least one gold-standard PCR test to control the spread of Covid-19 and check for new variants of coronavirus.

The number of tests required ranges from one to three, depending on where a person is arriving from, if they are vaccinated and whether they want to cut their quarantine.

Passengers must book their tests through a government website. On Friday, it listed 404 different providers, with prices ranging from £20 to more than £300 for two tests.

The government website warns that companies may charge more than the headline price advertised.

Javid said pricing needed to be “clearer and transparent”, and his department’s review will start this weekend and take 10 days.

He has also cut the price of NHS Test and Trace tests for international travel, from £88 to £68 for people arriving from countries on the government’s green list, plus those who are fully vaccinated and coming from nations on amber status. NHS Test and Trace advertises these tests alongside private providers’ deals.

The UK competition regulator said on Thursday that it will explore what can be done to tackle the high fees charged by some private providers following a request from Javid.

The travel industry welcomed Javid’s announcement, but questioned why it had come towards the end of a summer holiday season.

Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said the changes amounted to little more than “tinkering”.

“It is time for the government to get a grip on testing and replace costly PCR tests with more affordable rapid tests for low-risk countries and bring international travel in line with the rest of the economy,” she added.

On Friday, Gatwick airport said the UK was “in danger of squandering the advantage that its vaccination programme has afforded us for international travel.”

Stewart Wingate, Gatwick chief executive, said the government should completely exempt anyone fully vaccinated or returning from a green list country from the need for a test.

“UK travel recovery should not be allowed to lag behind the US and Europe,” he added.

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