I holidayed in Malta last month with my partner, having chosen it because it was on the ‘green list’. Foolishly, I assumed this would mean we could waltz back to the UK without any hassle. I was wrong. We needed a test before departing Malta.
Within a few minutes of looking on the Malta airport website, I found a provider, headed to their test centre, and €30 later, was given the all clear. But that wasn’t all. To complete my pre-flight passenger form, I needed a ‘Day 2’ test for when I was home. For this, the UK government has a website pointing holidaymakers towards a slew of private firms — 315 catering for the Greater London area alone. Costs range from £20 to £400 and you can filter the site to view the cheapest firms first.
Choosing a £20 option, I clicked through to the company’s website. But all the tests at that price were sold out. The same site was also selling tests for £55 — the difference between them was not specified.
Returning to the government’s list, I chose another firm offering £20 tests. But, again, all the cheap ones were gone. Instead, this provider was selling tests for £97 — before added postage charges.
Often the low prices stated on the government’s page are not for postal tests, but ‘self swab on site’, which involves travelling to a test centre where you administer your own test. Although I’d selected ‘Greater London’, the cheap rates advertised are only available if you go to a specific test centre in random parts of the country (I was offered cheap tests in Bradford, Bury St Edmunds and Barnsley, for instance). All the in-person tests in major cities, such as London and Liverpool, cost a small fortune.
The test websites are also set up to blind consumers with an array of options. Some have more than a dozen different choices, with different packages for travellers from green and amber countries, further options for ‘test to release’, and even more choices for the double-jabbed.
I’ve worked as an investigative journalist for a decade and think of myself as digitally savvy. Yet it took me two and a half hours to sift through the websites to eventually find two tests for £49 each. That’s still double what the government website said this particular provider was selling them for.
As I sat on my laptop in a Valletta café ordering the tests, I saw tour groups of double-jabbed British pensioners making their way through the Baroque streets. What chance did they have of making it through this process without accidentally racking up a gargantuan bill?
In some ways the most insulting aspect was the design of the websites, which rely heavily on stock images and often look very dated. Worse still, the language often reads like a spam email. ‘We are specialist in all forms of medical testing,’ claimed one. Others have utterly inexplicable paragraphs. Here’s a particular favourite: ‘This is sample text please insert your own here.’ Some prevent you from booking the cheaper tests by simply not working. And some of the names, such as ‘1 Stop Covid Shop’, fall some way short of inspiring confidence.
My £49 tests were bought from the generic-sounding Medicines Online. It suggested contacting the company via WhatsApp (always the sign of a great business). Its slogan was in block capitals (also encouraging): ‘LIVE POSITIVE, LIVE WITH FAITH.’ It sounds more like the tagline for a megachurch than a healthcare website.
The small print reveals it is, in fact, a firm called Dreams Studio Ltd, which trades on the internet as Medicines Online. According to Companies House, Dreams was created in 2019 to carry out ‘Specialised design activities’. Good to see it giving healthcare a go.
In fairness, the same website also gives a separate company number for Medicines Online Ltd. Searches revealed that the stated nature of this business is ‘Retail sale of clothing in specialised stores’. Even better.
A little digging revealed that a rival site called London Corona Test Centre is a trading name of Paragon Plus Ltd, which describes the firm’s purpose as ‘Other reservation service activities not elsewhere classified’. Meanwhile, its sole director describes himself online as a travel agent. Until 2018 Paragon was known as Holiday And More Limited. Another impressive pivot into the medical testing world.
In any case, the actual supply of tests and testing is all carried out by a small number of labs, with most of these websites acting as middle men. But by being listed on the government’s page, they can prominently shout on their sites that they are a ‘government-listed Covid tester’, while some feature a government logo.
The government claims it ‘does not recommend any particular test provider’ and that holidaymakers should ‘do your own research (for example, read reviews) about available providers’. Aside from the obvious issues in asking consumers to police the provision of Covid tests through ‘reviews’, it’s not fair for the government to point holidaymakers towards confusing and expensive websites and then say it is on them to analyse the firms.
It’s even less fair to allow companies to place misleading prices on the government website which aren’t available. Should it really be the role of the consumer to spend their time during their holiday working out which sites are worse rip-offs than others?
The Advertising Standards Authority is now investigating complaints about ‘inconsistent pricing’ of Covid tests on the government website. Considering the recent news that MPs would be able to claim back the cost of any tests on work travel, you’d be forgiven for thinking Westminster wouldn’t be bothered, but last weekend Health Secretary Sajid Javid asked the competition watchdog to investigate ‘excessive’ pricing and ‘exploitative practices’.
That’s all well and good, but I’m not only out of pocket, I am also down two and a half hours of my holiday.