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UK watchdog to explore ‘immediate’ action on fees for PCR tests

UK politics & policy updates

The UK competition regulator has said it will explore what immediate action can be taken to tackle the high fees charged by some of the private providers of Covid-19 travel tests after complaints from MPs and the industry about the slow pace of intervention. 

The Competition and Markets Authority on Thursday said it would explore “immediate actions” that the government could take ahead of the conclusion of the probe it launched earlier this week into the market for laboratory analysed PCR Covid-19 tests.

The move comes after MPs and the travel industry called for more rapid action on the issue of the cost to consumers of the tests and the reliability of providers after the CMA said its probe would take a month to complete.

Under England’s traffic light system for international travel people coming to the country from green and amber-list destinations must take at least one laboratory analysed PCR Covid-19 test to avoid fines of up to £2,000. A cost of a test ranges from £20 to nearly £600 depending on the provider.

With the travel industry struggling after 18 months of the pandemic, executives are concerned the full probe would only conclude after the key summer holiday season is over. The industry is concerned that the high costs are deterring people from taking a holiday or visiting friends and relatives. 

“The government must act urgently to review the system and re-evaluate the need for expensive PCR tests,” said Charlie Cornish, chief executive of Manchester Airports Group, which owns London Stansted, Manchester and East Midlands airports. 

“We won’t see a proper sustained recovery until the UK overhauls its costly and restrictive travel regime, which is out of step with the rest of Europe.” 

Robert Sinclair, chief executive of London City Airport, welcomed the CMA taking a more urgent approach and backed Cornish’s call for an overhaul of the regime for travel testing, urging the UK to adopt a “risk-based approach”.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of lobby group Airlines UK, said a rapid investigation would be “positive news” for the industry following months of government “dithering”. 

Huw Merriman, the chair of the Commons transport select committee, on Wednesday wrote to health secretary Sajid Javid asking for the CMA to address the situation “urgently”.

The CMA launched its probe on Tuesday after Javid wrote to the regulator at the end of last week requesting a “rapid high-level review” of the market for PCR travel tests.

The watchdog said at the time it was “aware of concerns about the evolving markets for Covid-19 tests for international travellers, concerns about price, the quality of service people are getting from test providers, and what happens when things go wrong”.

The probe will look at whether individual providers are breaching their obligations under consumer law and should be subject to enforcement action, as well as any “structural problems” within the testing market.

George Lusty, CMA senior director for consumer protection, on Thursday said: “This is a particularly pressing issue just now for families hoping to enjoy a well-earned holiday after such a difficult year.”

He added that the CMA was “providing ongoing support to [the health department], including on steps that could be considered in the interim, before the rest of our work on the PCR testing market is concluded”.

The FT reported last week that the body appointed to assess tests for travellers entering England has accredited only about 6 per cent of the test providers listed on the official government website.

UK airlines and airports have been haemorrhaging cash for 18 months and complain they are now lagging behind the rest of Europe, where an EU digital travel pass allows free travel without testing for vaccinated passengers. 

While passenger numbers at continental European airports have recovered to 60 per cent of their pre-Covid numbers, in the UK they are at just 28 per cent, according to data from Airports Council International.

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