Less than two weeks after international holidays resumed, there are signs the government’s post-trip Covid testing regime is descending into chaos, with passengers paying hundreds of pounds for tests that aren’t being processed, or fail to arrive.
Passengers landing at UK airports over the past 10 days have described having to call the NHS 119 helpline after their government-listed testing supplier failed to deliver their results, leaving them unclear as to whether it was safe to end their 10-day quarantine.
Others, who spent £200 and more on home testing kits, have reported that they were not delivered to their quarantine address. The fact that so many of these firms are uncontactable – many do not publish phone numbers – is adding to the sense of frustration, say customers.
All travellers entering England from an amber-list country are now required to have a Covid test on or before day two and on or after day eight, and to self-quarantine while they await the results. There is also the option of a third test, which releases you from quarantine on day five. Those arriving from a green-list country have to be tested once after arrival, on day two.
But rather than using the NHS Covid set-up that has tested the nation over the last year – and charging passengers accordingly – the government website offers a list of private firms, of which there are 325 operating in England alone.
Passengers face a baffling choice of firms charging anywhere between £85 and £390 for both tests. Some firms have already sold out of the kits that are mostly self-administered. Others are selling kits they don’t have in stock.
To add to the confusion, different rules apply in Wales and Scotland even though passengers mostly fly into English airports.
Maria Karagkouni, who flew back to the UK from Greece on 14 May, says she was forced to ask the NHS for a test after the private contractor, Dante Labs, failed to process the ones she had paid £116 for. Speaking to the Guardian from her Kent home, she was still waiting for her first test result more than 10 days after it was due.
“Trying to get hold of anyone at Dante is impossible as the company doesn’t have a phone number, and ignores all emails. It has hundreds of terrible reviews on Trustpilot and Facebook. Why it was even on the government list is beyond me. I will be asking to a chargeback from my bank to get my money back,” she says.
Paolo Grossi used the government list to book his two- and eight-day tests, after returning from Milan 10 days ago. The provider booked him an appointment at his local Camden clinic where swabs were to be taken. “On day two I was supposed to visit the clinic to be tested but ‘test and trace’ called to tell me I could not attend as I was not to leave the house. This contradicted what I had read on the government website, what I had been told by border force staff at Heathrow, and the clinic itself,” he says.
“I called 119 and the woman I spoke to didn’t know what the rules were, either. In the end she sent me two NHS tests and I used those.
“The testing regime is in chaos, and I still don’t know what the rules are. What’s going to happen when travel starts for real this summer?”
Laura Woodruff, who flew to Bristol from Madeira to see her father in Wales just before he died this week, says the scheme is “completely unfit for purpose”. She paid £75 to book a test in Cardiff for when she arrived.
“When I came to fill in the passenger-locator form, which you can only complete 48 hours before flying, it demanded a test reference number I did not have,” she says.
She was unable to get through to the provider that she had booked. “So, faced with losing the flight, I was forced to buy a second £88 test from another firm,” she says. “It seems that the Welsh government changed the rules after I booked the first one, but why are rules even different from England in the first place? The whole process is unbelievably difficult to navigate.”
Rory Boland, the Which? Travel editor, says the consumer group raised concerns about the testing regime prior to international travel restarting.
“Proper regulatory oversight of testing for travel is urgently needed, not least to protect public health, and cannot be delayed any longer,” he says. “Millions of people are going to rely on this system over the summer, and risk being left significantly out of pocket through no fault of their own if these problems are not addressed by the government immediately.”
Dante Labs was approached for comment.
A government spokesperson said: “It is the responsibility of the relevant private provider to manage the availability of their tests.
“We are closely monitoring the performance of private test providers to ensure they deliver a high quality service to customers, as we cautiously reopen international travel. If they do not provide an adequate service, they receive a five-day warning and are then removed from the gov.uk list of test providers if they do not improve.”