The questions Sajid Javid is facing over ‘rip-off’ holiday PCR testing
Health secretary under scrutiny over high fees and number of tests sequenced
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Pressure is mounting on the government to intervene over the cost of PCR tests, with more than 100 government-sanctioned providers charging around £200 for the swabs needed to travel abroad this summer.
Facing rising anger over the costly tests, Sajid Javid has ordered the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate “rip-off prices” as outrage spirals over the costs, the Daily Mirror reports.
In a letter to CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli, the health secretary said: “I know that for too many people the cost of PCR testing can act as a barrier, especially for families who want to travel together.
“We have all experienced enormous disruption to our lives over this pandemic but it is not right if some families experience yet further disruption unnecessarily because of potentially unfair practices in the market for private travel tests.”
A list of providers featured on the government website shows “more than 100 outlets charging £200 or more”, the Daily Mirror says, with the BBC also reporting that “prices can reach hundreds” and some providers selling tests at “more than £500”.
Despite the request by the health secretary for a “rapid, high-level” review of “exploitative practices” among providers of private PCR tests, the CMA has said it would report its recommendations “within the next month”, The Times says. The investigation timeline has “ended hopes of a foreign holiday this summer for millions of families”, the paper adds , with many unable to afford the cost of going abroad under the current scheme.
“We simply cannot wait a month to fix this inflated and broken market,” said Huw Merriman, the Conservative chair of the Commons transport committee. The Tory MP has also called on Javid to justify the use of expensive PCR tests in the government’s international travel policy, when few tests have been sent for sequencing this summer.
In a three-page letter to the health secretary, Merriman wrote that the percentage of tests being sent for sequencing has fallen “from 49% in early March to just 5% in early July, equating to 354 sequences out of a total of nearly 7,000 Covid positive samples”, PoliticsHome says.
Javid faces “tough questions” over what steps were taken to prepare sequencing capacity for the reopening of international travel, as well as if international test results will be prioritised over domestic cases, the site adds.
‘Preserve of the wealthy’
The controversy over government-approved PCR testing has provoked a backlash from backbench Tory MPs and travel industry leaders alike, with Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley, which is home to Gatwick Airport, demanding in The Telegraph that PCR tests be capped at £40.
Would-be holidaymakers are being forced to “pay through the nose for a battery of tests that on average still cost around £100 per traveller”, Smith said. “How many businesses, or theatres, or restaurants, could survive if the government slapped a £100 tax on each transaction? The real risk is that air travel becomes the preserve only of the wealthy, for whom adding £400 to the cost of a family week in Spain is no big deal.”
For Javid, his failure to get an investigation underway quickly means the situation now merits “upgrading to a full fiasco”, says Alex Wickham in Politico London Playbook, who notes that the timescale for a report by the CMA is “not exactly rapid”.
“The market is clearly broken,” an editorial in the Evening Standard states, suggesting that a £40 cap would stop would-be holidaymakers “from being fleeced” prior to their summer getaways.
“The government has let this problem rumble on for too long,” the paper adds. “It should stop the great PCR rip-off, and put the public ahead of Covid profiteers.”