Andrea Coscelli, chief executive at the CMA

The UK’s competition watchdog has advised the government to implement greater regulation on the PCR Covid testing market amid fears that competition alone “will not deliver the right outcomes for consumers”.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) highlighted the risk of a “race to the bottom”, in which testing firms could begin to compete on grounds other than quality with travellers ending up losing out.

Earlier, consumers had complained against the test providers about high charges and poor service. Complainants even said that some providers did not pay refunds and became inaccessible when things went wrong.

The average cost of such a test is £93 in the UK, far higher than in many European countries.

Besides advising the government on the matter, the CMA is already using its powers to act where it can. On August 25, it published an open letter to all PCR test providers warning them to adhere to the consumer law.

Later on September 3, it opened a formal investigation into Expert Medicals, one of the largest providers in the market. It is also considering to launch probe into other companies.

Meanwhile, the CMA review found that “combination of up-front regulation, monitoring and wider sanctions is needed” to deliver right outcome for consumers.

It recommended that the government should create a list of quality providers by “significantly improving the basic standards to qualify for inclusion”.

In addition, an enhanced monitoring system should be brought in to keep track of providers and quickly remove those which fall short of standards.

CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli said the market needs a “more interventionist approach” backed by monitoring and enforcement to protect consumers.

“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.”

Health secretary Sajid Javid said the government has removed 91 providers from and corrected inaccurate prices of 135 private providers, who will be removed from the list if they advertise misleading prices again.

Further, to ensure travel test providers perform as per law, from September 21, “there will be tough new penalties for companies that fail to follow the law, including fixed fines of up to £10,000.”

Javid added: “I am reviewing the recommendations from the Competition and Markets Authority and will outline further changes shortly to ensure consumers are given the best tests at the very best prices.”

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