Sir David Davis comments on capping the cost of PCR tests


As published in The Daily Mail:

Rip-off Covid PCR tests for travel that can cost up to £400 each should be capped at £40, MPs have urged the Government.

Senior Conservative politicians called on Health Secretary Sajid Javid to crack down on the ‘Wild West’ testing market.

Henry Smith, chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation group, said the PCR testing regime looked ‘increasingly dubious’.

And chairman of the transport select committee Huw Merriman published a letter to the Health Secretary urging him to give ‘serious consideration’ to making tests more affordable.

Mr Javid wrote to the Competition and Markets Authority watchdog last week, asking it to urgently investigate firms profiteering off testing requirements.

The agency responded yesterday, announcing it would report its recommendations ‘within the month’ — meaning the fiasco may not be fixed for several weeks.

Even the Government’s own Health Department is charging four times more than the cheapest private provider, it was revealed today.

A Mail analysis found this ratio has increased from earlier this summer, when its PCR swabs were twice as expensive as the least expensive option on the market.

Critics branded ministers ‘hypocrites’ and labelled the fiasco ‘a national scandal’.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Smith said tests should not be sold for greater than £40.

He said: ‘The rationale for the testing regime looks increasingly dubious.

‘Why not, instead, sample a random group of arrivals rather than require everyone to pay for tests frequently run by shoddy companies failing to deliver tests on time and guilty of making hugely misleading price claims?’

And Mr Merriman wrote: ‘The high cost, poor quality and lack of sequencing from PCR tests needs to be urgently addressed by the Government.

‘They are an unnecessary barrier to affordable international travel.’

Fellow transport committee member Simon Jupp branded test providers ‘rip-off merchants’.

Meanwhile, former Brexit minister David Davis said capping costs would be ‘perfectly sensible’ and ministers should scrap the 20 per cent VAT on them.

Chairman of the 1922 Conservative backbench committee Sir Graham Brady said the Government should ensure tests are sold at a ‘reasonable cost’.

It came as it emerged that health ministers have not assessed the potential benefits to hard-working families of capping test costs despite pledges to drive down prices.

The disclosure came in an answer to a written parliamentary question from Mr Davis, who asked health minister Jo Churchill if her department had assessed ‘the potential benefits’ to British holidaymakers of capping costs.

She replied: ‘The department has not made a specific assessment.’ She also insisted testing costs ‘have fallen significantly’ in recent months.

But the Mail’s analysis revealed the Government is continuing to demand £88 for a post-arrival PCR test – the same as it was charging in June.

This is more than four times the £20 being advertised by the cheapest private firms on the Government’s list of approved providers.

In June the amount was double what the cheapest private firm was advertised as charging, then £44.

It means the Government’s prices could add more than £350 to the cost of a foreign break for a family of four to a green or amber list country, as even the double-jabbed are required to take a PCR swab by day two of their return.

And its price for a two-test package, required for non-fully vaccinated people arriving from amber countries, remains £170.

This could add nearly £700 to the cost of a family getaway.

Boris Johnson previously pledged to make it ‘as easy as possible’ for families to travel abroad this summer. But critics last night said ministers’ failure to reduce their prices meant this promise had been broken.

Labour MP and former minister Ben Bradshaw said: ‘It is quite clear that despite Boris Johnson’s promises, the Government has no intention of doing anything to bring down the cost of tests.

‘While separated families can’t afford to travel to see one another and thousands of jobs in the travel industry are being needlessly sacrificed, mates of ministers are raking it in with these outrageous prices.’

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy the PC Agency, said: ‘Ministers are absolutely hypocrites. Actions speak louder than words and sadly, as this demonstrates, there have been very few actions by ministers.

‘The PCR testing regime is not only a national embarrassment, but a national scandal.’

There is no obligation to choose the Government’s post-arrival testing package instead of a private provider’s.

Although some private providers are advertised on the Government website as offering single-swab packages for £20, the Mail yesterday revealed how these rates are often not realistically obtainable for many, as when clicking through to each firm’s website they are mostly out of stock or only offered in centres, meaning many would have to travel hundreds of miles.

The £399 PCR test listed on the UK Government’s approved list of providers is offered by the Mayfair GP, a small private practice based in London.

The Department of Health says the tests — which can be performed in a matter of minutes — are carried out by people in their own home. But they are supervised by medical staff, meaning the firm may factor in some travel and labour costs.

The Mayfair GP uses Oncologica’s laboratory to carry out the testing, suggesting the provider likely has to pay to get samples analysed. Labs use a machine and array of chemicals to decipher whether a sample contains Covid.

A price in the region of £20 would be reasonable for the swabs according to Professor Stephen Bustin, a world-renowned expert on PCR at Anglia Ruskin University. Research by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change suggests the whole test process can cost as little as £15.

Mr Merriman demanded to know why returning travellers can’t take cheaper rapid tests when so few positive cases are being sequenced. He pointed to NHS figures showing sequenced cases fell from 49 per cent during late February to early March.

For the first three weeks of July, there were 6,977 cases with 354 sequenced – just 5 per cent.

He also asked why more than 90 per cent of Government-approved private testing companies are yet to be accredited as competent operators.

Only around 38 of the more than 400 firms on the list have been fully approved by the UK Accreditation Service, responsible for vetting the firms.

A Health Department spokesman said: ‘Companies that fail to meet the high standards required will be removed from our list of approved suppliers without hesitation.’