Government given advice on coronavirus travel tests in April – watchdog

The competition watchdog is insisting it gave advice to Government officials about coronavirus travel testing in April, amid claims it has been too cautious in taking action.

Travel industry leaders expressed frustration last week when the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced it would report its recommendations around testing “within the next month” following a request by Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

But a CMA spokesman said on Tuesday that the organisation “gave advice to DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) officials about the PCR testing market in April and we gave further advice to the Secretary of State last week”.

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, told the PA news agency that this is “further evidence” that the Government has been “too slow in reducing the costs of testing, and dragging its feet on the untruths told by some providers”.

He continued: “The delay in dealing with cowboy operators, which continues to this day, is putting off people from travelling and hindering recovery among travel firms.”

Following its initial response to Mr Javid last week, the CMA said it was looking at whether there were any “immediate actions” the Government can take.

PA understands that the watchdog first provided analysis to the DHSC in April and May about the potential risks arising from the rapid development of the coronavirus testing industry.

Options to address concerns over the price and reliability of tests and the quality of service from test providers have been sent to Mr Javid to consider.

Former CMA chairman Lord Tyrie accused the watchdog of being “too slow to react”.

It “could and should have been better prepared”, he told the BBC.

Travellers arriving in the UK require one or two PCR tests, depending on where they have been and their vaccination status. Some can take a third test for a shorter self-isolation period.

Tests must be bought from providers listed on a Government website.

Some firms advertise prices as low as £19, but many holidaymakers have complained it is impossible to book tests that cheap.

PCR tests taken at home typically cost around £65, with some private clinics charging approximately £200.

There has also been frustration over delays in receiving tests and results, and overflowing drop-off boxes.

Mr Javid has acknowledged that the cost of PCR testing can be “a barrier” to people wanting to travel and said consumers and families need to be protected from “exploitative practices”.

He has ordered his department to urgently review the list of private providers on to ensure pricing is clearer and transparent.

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK
(PA Graphics)

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Birmingham have said a new potentially cheaper and quicker Covid-19 test could be rolled out at airports in as little as three months.

They claim to have developed a test that is as sensitive as a PCR test but can give results in just a few minutes without the need for laboratory processing.

Tim Dafforn, professor of biotechnology at the university’s School of Biosciences, said: “An ideal test would be one that is both sufficiently sensitive and speedy – our test, called RTF-EXPAR, achieves this goal.”

He added: “The simplicity and speed of this new test means that it is ideally suited to environments where a rapid answer is required close to need, like airports and entertainment venues.

“The test works with existing instrumentation, meaning that it could conceivably be deployed in these areas in three to six months with some commercial backing.”