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Covid-19: PCR and Lateral Flow Test Providers

Volume 817: debated on Monday 13 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what due diligence they carry out on companies listed on GOV.UK, that offer travel PCR and lateral flow tests for COVID-19.

The private sector has stepped up extremely rapidly, and most of the tens of thousands of travellers have had an excellent and professional service. However, we do not tolerate any providers taking advantage of customers. All providers in the PCR international travel market are required to meet robust minimum standards, and we remove those we identify as having fallen short of them. Since we launched the travel service, we have removed over 100 providers.

My Lords, for many people that is just not their lived experience. The approved supply list for the two-day PCR test on GOV.UK is fundamentally flawed. Many thousands of people either do not receive the test results within the two-day timeline or at all. Despite many people reporting these companies to NHS Test and Trace, they remain on the list as of today, making tens of thousands of pounds while undermining the public health effort. What will the Minister do to ensure that this kind of procedure stops?

It is important to distinguish between PCR tests if you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace and PCR tests for travel purposes. If you are contacted by test and trace, you are sent a PCR test for free. But when it comes to travel, the view is that the traveller should bear that cost rather than the taxpayer. After I saw this Question, I went on to one of these websites and tested it out for myself. As the noble Lord says, the price quoted is often not the first price. I have had a conversation with those that provide it, and they are looking at a number of different solutions.

My Lords, why can vaccines only be obtained through the National Health Service, while Covid tests valid for travelling can only be obtained privately?

I am not sure I completely agree with the premise of my noble friend’s question, but I will double-check. The decision had to be made that if people are contacted by test and trace, it is only right that they are sent a PCR test. But if they are travelling, should the taxpayer bear the burden of the cost of their PCR test, or should they? A number of travel companies are now recommending PCR tests for their passengers.

My Lords, it is not just Matt Hancock and Randox, or Rupert Soames at Serco: a large number of these companies that have multimillion—even multibillion—pound contracts for testing have links with Tory members, MPs and Peers. Is this just a coincidence? Is it serendipity? Or is it something more sinister?

I suggest that if the noble Lord would like to take a PCR test before he travels, he goes through a number of price comparison websites and chooses the one he feels is more suitable for him.

My Lords, there are rumours circulating—more than rumours, I think—that we are running out of testing kits. Is that true? Can my noble friend give us some reassurance on that front?

I thank my noble friend for bringing that to my attention. I was in a meeting with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care as well as other Ministers today. We were told categorically that we have ordered many more tests to enable people to test more often.

My Lords, there are hundreds of private test companies to choose from when you are heading abroad, and that is part of the problem. Which? carried out some mystery shopping in the autumn and revealed a list of companies that give the most reliable and best-value tests—I share that information with the House—and also the ones to avoid as being rip-offs and unreliable. Is the Minister aware of this consumer research? What notice will the Government be taking of the ones that Which? recommends not to use? Have they yet been removed from the Government’s list?

I thank the noble Baroness for making noble Lords aware of that particular comparison website—let me put it that way. We try carefully not to recommend particular private providers or comparison websites, but this market is developing, and there are lots of comparison websites out there looking at this market. As we start to have more testing and do more diagnoses at home, this market will develop.

My Lords, I was one of the first people in the country to call for lateral flow tests, going back to August last year, and I am delighted that the Government now provide these free to businesses and the public. Can the Minister assure us that these tests will continue to be made available free as we continue to fight this pandemic? Secondly, as president of the CBI, let me say that the aviation sector is suffering hugely. Is there a need for pre-departure PCR tests when we could use lateral flow tests?

Let me assure the noble Lord that there will be sufficient tests; and if you are contacted by test and trace, you will either be asked to take a lateral flow test or be sent a PCR test. But when it comes to international travel, we feel it is only right that the traveller or the company bears the cost. At the moment, travel companies are offering and recommending specific PCR tests.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, wishes to speak virtually. I think this is a convenient point for me to call her.

My Lords, the Minister has just had trouble responding to the Question from noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the process used to review performance of the Government-approved travel PCR testing companies. Can I give him a specific example? TestnGo has a 76% “poor” rating on Trustpilot, with thousands of people not receiving their PCR tests and others not getting the results in two days. As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has said, many have reported this to test and trace, so why is it still on the Government’s list of approved suppliers?

I thank the noble Baroness for suggesting another price comparison website. There is an accreditation scheme, and every time companies are reported to the Government, we look at how to remove them. There is a four-stage process for UKAS accreditation, and sometimes when companies are reported, another one pops up.

My Lords, can the Minister say what the average cost to the NHS of both a PCR and a lateral flow test is, so that that can inform people in relation to the cost in the private sector?

I do not have the exact numbers, so I will write to the noble Baroness. On loss-leading services, anything under £15 was removed because it was deemed that that was dishonest or underpriced.

Following on from that question, I remind my noble friend that, as far as I am aware, all the PCR tests are endorsed by Her Majesty’s Government, but the price varies from £60 to over £120. In that condition, if they are endorsed, will my noble friend talk to the companies concerned and decide on a recommended price level?

When I was discussing this with the people responsible for accreditation, they said that often a number of companies are reported to them and they look into them. Quite often companies will then be removed, but they can come back. The issue is that companies sometimes get provisional approval at the first stage while they are going through the full approval process. That will be reviewed in time.

My Lords, in answering the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, the Minister referred to the fact that 100 companies had been removed from the list, presumably by his department or NHS Test and Trace. He presumably monitors all of this, so could he tell us exactly how many complaints there have been and how many of such complaints are necessary before a company is removed?

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord; I do not personally monitor this, but I will get the figures and write to him.

My Lords, can the Minister explain the wide difference in price from these companies? It seems to the general public that some are ripping clients off, but the Government do not seem to want to do anything about it.

One of the issues the Government have is that the GOV.UK website is pretty rudimentary. As this market develops over time, more and more people will look to private comparison websites—noble Lords have mentioned a few of them. It is also important to distinguish between the different types of PCR test. Some companies charge far more but offer a much quicker turnaround than those whose service might take a few days.

My Lords, one might imagine that laboratories would give a reasonably consistent price. This is really all about consistency and fair pricing. That is the issue that needs to be taken into account, and I commend my Cross-Bench colleague for the point she made about the NHS. Given that the written word is often in the eye of the beholder, would it be helpful to have more flow chart-type messaging on the GOV.UK website? The perception is that what is on there is extremely complicated to understand.

The noble Viscount makes an important observation. When I looked at the website myself, I saw how confusing it was. When I discussed this with the people responsible, they said that they had changed it over time; for example, it now has minimum prices—one of the suggestions I made was that perhaps it should also have maximum prices. There is also the question of how you categorise, because there are different tests; some can be turned around in 24 hours, while others take a few days.