Most of the cheapest Covid tests for travellers listed on the government website are not available to holidaymakers who plan to go away this summer, with critics saying consumers are at the mercy of a “wild west” marketplace.
The Advertising Standards Authority told the Guardian it was now investigating, after receiving complaints from consumers about what it described as “inconsistent pricing”.
Private companies offering tests to travellers are listed on a government website for consumers to search and results appear in order of price, with the cheapest options at the top.
At first glance, packages seem to be available for as little as £23. However, analysis of the deals advertised by the first 50 companies on the list shows that of the 36 offering on-site tests or click and collect packages, the cheapest options for travellers, two-thirds could not be bought or had no appointments until September.
Analysts at the consultancy Fideres who conducted the research said companies appeared to be offering a “smattering” of low cost on-site tests in order to jump to the top of the list of 400-plus providers.
The cheapest two-swab postal kit, which would be required by travellers returning from an amber list country, cost £78, it found.
“The government is reporting prices that are a small fraction of what most consumers pay, without actually checking if these low prices are available,” said Fideres associate Paul Vella. “Not only does this mislead consumers, it can actually steer them into using more expensive providers.”
Unvaccinated holidaymakers returning to England from an amber list country must take a test before travel and book PCR tests for days two and eight of a 10-day quarantine when they return. If they are fully vaccinated, they only have to do one post-return test. English holidaymakers can shop around for the best deal but the rules governing tests in the other home nations are different.
In Wales, for example, travellers pay a set price and the test is provided by the NHS.
Fideres found that names at the top of the government list had the biggest gap between their advertised and actual prices within the Top 50.
The government’s decision to list companies based on price, regardless of its accessibility, meant companies were encouraged to offer at least one extremely low cost service, Vella said.
It is not just the price of tests giving consumers a headache but the sheer difficulty of getting hold of them. Providers include the labs themselves, established resellers as well as recently formed companies that industry insiders say are little more than a website and phone number.
On Tuesday Fideres tried to book the cheap on-site or click and collect test packages advertised by the 36 firms in the Top 50. For August it was only possible to do this at a dozen of the companies, with attempts to book on some websites simply reaching a dead end. Where there was availability, it was usually in just one location.
On Friday morning CK Doctors Covid Travel Clinics was second on the list with a £23.50 supervised test.
However, the option was only available on Mondays and there were no slots available at its Bradford site until September.
Anglia DNA, listed third, advertised a travel package for £24 but the test site is in Norwich and the booking system did not work for dates in August.
CK Doctors Covid Travel Clinics said it had no plans to stop advertising the deal and the availability of tests was a capacity issue. “We will be trying to increase the availability of this offer and extend it in the future based on capacity,” it said.
Anglia DNA said there were a number of products at the low price points that were available on its website however availability was “highly dynamic”.
“We are effectively sold out in some product categories for the next three weeks, as we have utilised full capacity for that period,” an Anglia DNA spokesperson said. “Bookings are taken up extremely quickly and early in the day. We are working hard to meet unprecedented demand as we build the platform for all product areas.”
The government list is regularly updated, and 19 of the Top 50 cheapest test providers of two-swab test packages on Thursday no longer made the cut on Friday. Analysts said consumers should realistically expect to pay about £114 for a two-swab home test kit.
While there are 421 companies listed on the government portal, the supply of tests and processing is done by only a handful of labs, with seven handling about 75% of the market. The rock bottom prices being advertised are often below cost, as the amount charged by labs to process tests, excluding the kit, is about £38.
“This is only sustainable if providers restrict supply to the below-cost service, using it to steer customers into buying their more expensive tests,” said Vella. The government should verify that the prices listed are “truly available to a meaningful number of consumers”.
Testing firms are worried that the system is damaging the industry. Avi Lasarow, at testing firm Project Screen by Prenetics, called for the government to police it more closely.
“The government’s list of holiday Covid test providers is like the wild west with cowboys not playing fair with holidaymakers,” he said. “It is clearly trying to monitor and measure providers to enforce higher standards. But this needs to now include a review of pricing and service policies as a way to further ensure consumers are getting a reliable end-to-end service.”
The government website states that the prices are a “guide” and the “final price you pay could be different to the displayed price”. Consumers have been advised to use comparison sites such as covid19-testing.org or look at reviews on sites like Trustpilot before deciding which firm to use.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We do not endorse or recommend any private Covid-19 test provider. All private providers must meet the minimum required standards and each of them are reviewed by the independent United Kingdom Accreditation Service.
“The government carefully monitors issues raised by the public and takes rapid action with companies where necessary, giving providers a five-day warning if their service is inadequate and if they do not rectify it, removing them from the appropriate travel test list.”
A spokesperson the Advertising Standards Authority said: “We have received complaints about this, regarding inconsistent pricing, which we are currently reviewing.”