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Why do PCR tests for travel cost so much and could prices fall?

No one wants it, but every passenger entering the UK must take at least one PCR test after arrival. With the main school summer holidays under way, there is even more cash up for grabs by testing companies – for a purchase the traveller simply can’t avoid.

Now the health secretary, Sajid Javid, has asked the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate if there is profiteering among the firms offering tests.

Mr Javid tweeted: “People should be able to go on holiday, whether it’s to see family or just to relax, without fearing excessive fees for PCR tests.

“That’s why I’ve asked the independent CMA to see how we can crack down on unfair market practices.”

A CMA spokesperson told The Independent: “We are aware of concerns about the evolving markets for Covid-19 tests for international travellers. We look forward to providing the secretary of state with advice on how best to ensure that travellers have access to tests that are affordable and reliable.” 

What’s the problem?

The government requires all arriving and returning travellers to pre-book a PCR test to be taken on the day they arrive or one of the two following days.

Arrivals from “green list” nations – and fully vaccinated travellers from “amber list” countries – cannot complete their passenger locator form without having pre-booked a PCR test; for unvaccinated travellers from amber countries, a second test is required.

“You must book your tests before you travel and leave enough time for them to be delivered to your address in England,” the government says.

The test can be carried out at the airport, ferry port or international rail station on arrival, or through a self-administered test that is either posted to the laboratory or taken to a central collection point.

The industry has grown very quickly, with a limited infrastructure, and as a result many things are going wrong – particularly tests going astray and taking a long time to process.

But the main problem for many travellers is the high cost, averaging £70 for a single PCR test. Added to the pre-departure test abroad, each traveller is typically having to spend £100 on testing in addition to the cost of the trip.

The prices are way out of line with other countries. To compensate, some travel firms, notably Tui, are subsidising costs for package holidaymakers.

For travellers heading for Scotland and Wales, PCR tests must be purchased through the Scotland CTM portal or the Wales CTM portal. With a single provider, costs are high.

What would a reasonable price be?

The elements of the test cost very little – perhaps a couple of pounds. Even with delivery and processing costs included, Professor Stephen Bustin, an expert on quantitative PCR at Anglia Ruskin University, says £20 would be fair.

He told The Independent: “A fair price – one which reflects ingredient costs as well as the infrastructure required – would be around about £20.”

For personalised service, such as rushing through a test for a passenger who needs one to travel, the price might run to hundreds of pounds. But the millions of holidaymakers arriving home are not in any hurry to get their results.

A “get rich quick” scheme?

For some providers it appears to be. According to the latest NHS Test & Trace stats, more than three million tests have been taken since April, which indicates an industry that’s taken in around £200m – likely to increase to £300m by the end of August.

On my two most recent trips, the test has cost much more than the air fare home.

Standards appear to be slipping, too, as companies vie for custom.

Were there any confidence among companies that this was anything other than a short-term gold rush, then there would be lots of investment in order to get complex systems up and running.

But the expectation among many companies is that this is all going to come to an end abruptly at some point in the near future so they’re just making hay while the sun shines – and while the government is slow to act on high prices and shoddy service.

What does the travel industry say?

The reaction is generally dismay. Unlike the testing companies, travel companies fear that the decision to launch an investigation signals that PCR tests will be here for the long term.

Short term, there is little chance of the move helping holidaymakers during the peak August season, unless the very threat of investigation triggers a sudden, radical change in behaviour by companies.

“Why has Sajid Javid left it until midsummer to write to the CMA to investigate something we already know: exploitative PCR testing,” said Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership.

Inbound tourism firms are in despair too, because the tests must also be taken by incoming tourists – sharply increasing the cost and complexity of a trip to the UK.

Why can’t the NHS provide tests?

The National Health Service has one or two things on at the moment besides facilitating overseas travel, and the government has taken the view that people wishing to go abroad should meet the cost of mandatory tests when they travel.

Some say, though, that the NHS could make some useful money by being an official test provider.

What should the traveller do?

My preference is to take a test at the arrival airport as soon as you land – with a medic administering it so you know it has been done properly and will be processed immediately.

For personal peace of mind and wider public health perspective (detecting possible threats quickly), that looks the right thing to do. My most recent test, at Heathrow Terminal 5 with ExpressTest, cost £69.

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