‘Lottery’ PCR market ‘not good enough’, says competition authority

By Louise Longman
10/09/2021
Home » ‘Lottery’ PCR market ‘not good enough’, says competition authority

The whole PCR test experience has been described as a ‘lottery’ and ‘not good enough’ by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority on the completion of its probe into the market.

In early August, Health Secretary Sajid Javid asked the CMA to investigate the PCR testing market amid claims the public was being ‘ripped off’.

He asked the CMA to assess what could be done to ensure holidaymakers don’t face unnecessarily high costs and get quality tests.

CMA Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli said: “Buying a PCR travel test is a lottery. From complaints about dodgy pricing practices, to unfair terms, to failure to provide tests on time or at all, to problems with getting refunds, the experience for some is just not good enough.

The CMA found there are features of the PCR testing market which mean competition alone will not deliver the right outcomes for consumers.

It said there is a risk of a ‘race to the bottom’, in which providers compete on grounds other than high clinical quality and travellers end up losing out.

Consumers’ complaints include that they are paying over the odds and receiving poor service, with test kits and results arriving late or not at all. They also say that, when things do go wrong, they are unable even to contact some providers, let alone get refunds when they are due.

However, the CMA’s review found that, even with the enforcement of consumer protection law, competition cannot be guaranteed to deliver the right outcomes for consumers in the PCR testing market. A combination of up-front regulation, monitoring and wider sanctions is needed.

The CMA is recommending the Government takes the following action:

  • Create a one-stop shop list of quality, approved test providers by significantly improving the basic standards to qualify for inclusion and remaining on the GOV.UK list
  • Introduce a comprehensive monitoring and enforcement programme to ensure providers on the GOV.UK list meet these basic standards and rules, and swiftly removing and sanctioning those firms that don’t
  • Improve the provider listings on GOV.UK so consumers get the information they need to compare providers properly and find the best deals for them
  • Develop the NHS Test and Trace travel test as a benchmark for quality and price to drive higher standards and more competition across the sector
  • Monitor prices and costs on an ongoing basis, in case price reductions are not seen on the back of other measures

Ms Coscelli continued: “Recent weeks have underlined that we will not hesitate to take action against any PCR test provider we suspect is breaking the law and exploiting their customers.

“However, competition alone will not do the job, even when backed by enforcement of consumer law. The PCR testing market is unusual because its key features are dictated by Government policy decisions to fight the pandemic.

“This means a more interventionist approach to shape behaviour in the market from the outset, backed up by monitoring and enforcement, is needed.”

On 25 August, the CMA published an open letter to all PCR test providers warning them to stay on the right side of consumer law.

And on 3 September, the CMA launched an investigation into Expert Medicals, one of the largest providers in the market, and investigations into other companies are being considered.

The CMA said no decision has yet been made on whether Expert Medicals is breaking the law.

Which? Travel Editor Rory Boland said: “The CMA’s review reinforces Which?’s repeated warnings to the Government that the current private testing system is not fit for purpose, leaving travellers at the mercy of firms charging extortionate sums for tests, using misleading pricing or taking money for services that don’t exist.

“The Government must now urgently set out how it will implement the regulator’s recommendations and ensure safe, reliable and affordable tests are available for all travellers. Meanwhile, the regulator must continue to come down strongly on any providers not following the rules, to send a clear message to the rest of the market and prevent any more travellers being left out of pocket.”

During the course of the CMA’s review there were more than 400 providers offering Day 2 or Day 2 and Day 8 test packages listed on Gov.uk and more than 900 providers of PCR testing services.

DHSC has estimated that the average prices consumers pay are £59 for ‘Green’ (Day 2) PCR tests and £103 for an ‘Amber’ package (Day 2 & 8) tests.

The CMA found that, depending on method of collection, the median advertised price was between £90-£120 for a Day 2 test and between £180-£210 for a Day 2 & 8 package.

Some will see the investigation into the PCR testing market as coming too late given wide speculation that they will scrapped as part of a review of the traffic light system.

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