PCR travel tests need better policing, warns ex-watchdog boss Andrew Tyrie

Poor service from suppliers of PCR travel tests is “an issue of national significance”, and regulators are not doing enough to police hundreds of new businesses that have moved into the market, the former competition boss Andrew Tyrie has said.

In an interview with the Guardian, Lord Tyrie, who was chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority until last year, called for a clean up of the list of PCR test providers published on the government website, which many travellers consult before buying a kit.

Tyrie said appearing on the official list has some of the characteristics of a “licence” and it should be possible to enforce minimum service standards. “It’s not beyond the wit of man to ensure that a reasonable service is available.”

These measures should include firms taking liability for consumer costs when test results are late and a staffed phone line and email address with a minimum response time, he says.

Customer reviews and performance scores, based on data such as complaint rates or the proportion of tests processed on time – which companies should be made to share – should also be visible on the official website, Tyrie adds.

If consumers were given more information to gauge the reliability of a service they could make their own decisions about whether to trade quality and reliability off against price. “That way the good firms can drive out the bad,” he said.

The government website, which lists testing companies in price order, says it “does not endorse or recommend any specific test provider” and “you should do your own research”.

Tyrie, a former Conservative MP and chair of the Treasury select committee, gained notoriety grilling prime ministers, Bank of England officials and banking chiefs after the 2008 financial crisis. He resigned as chairman of the CMA last summer.

Since leaving he has been critical of the watchdog’s performance. Problems in the testing market had been obvious since the spring and the CMA should have moved faster, with warning letters or potentially a test case, he argues.

The decision to disband the CMA’s newly created coronavirus taskforce was a mistake too, he suggests. The unit had been effective in the early months of the pandemic when, for example, it clamped down on suspected profiteering on hand sanitiser.

“The fact the taskforce was there and monitoring things itself almost certainly had a deterrent effect,” suggested Tyrie. “The CMA needs a small group of people dedicated to addressing this appalling detriment. It is threatening to become a massive rip off.”

The CMA has told 25 PCR providers to clean up their act or risk enforcement action and has also begun formal investigations into Expert Medicals and Dante Labs. In the autumn it provided its advice to Department of Health and Social Care on how it could make the PCR market work better for consumers.

At that time Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive, said competition alone was not enough to deliver a healthy market because important aspects were dictated by government policy, so it needed to take a more “interventionist” approach, backed up by monitoring and enforcement.

With the PCR travel test still a minefield for consumers Tyrie said the CMA had the “technical expertise to help the DHSC minimise the consumer detriment and needed to make every effort to put it at their disposal”.

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