Some passengers arriving in the UK are having to extend their quarantine or pay for additional Covid tests as private labs are failing to deliver results on time, Which? has found, raising concerns about the capacity of the UK’s travel testing system weeks before international travel is set to re-open.
Currently, anyone arriving in the UK (unless exempt) must quarantine for a mandatory 10 days and take a PCR test on day two and day eight of their quarantine. These tests typically cost between £160 and £200, but can cost over £500. Travellers must receive negative results for both tests to leave quarantine after day 10.
However, social media and review sites have been flooded with complaints about test result delays, with a Facebook group for people suffering problems with the system amassing around 1,500 members, and Which? has also heard from travellers who did not receive their test results within 10 days.
Without test results, travellers face having to pay hundreds of pounds for additional tests or stay in quarantine for longer than they need to, potentially causing problems for those who cannot work from home.
The consumer champion also understands that at present, only four private test providers out of more than 500 on the government’s list of providers have been accredited – Nationwide Pathology, Source Bioscience, Oncologica and Eurofins Forensic Services. Of those four, only Nationwide Pathology and Oncologica offer day two and day eight test kits, raising concerns about oversight of the test providers.
With mass travel set to resume next month, Which? is concerned that the travel test system – which is already struggling to handle demand when international travel is restricted – is at risk of being overwhelmed, and potentially collapsing when restrictions are lifted.
Erkal Taskin, who returned from Turkey after visiting his ill father in early April, told Which? that he didn’t receive his day two test kit from Anglia, a government-listed test provider, until he had been in the UK for a week.
Only after he contacted Anglia through Twitter and Which? responded to his tweets did it promise him a refund. It finally gave him his day two result 15 days after he had arrived in the country, and he still has not received his day eight result. Anglia apologised for the problems, and described the case as “an extreme outlier even in terms of the small number of cases where our client has had some processing or fulfilment issues.”
He added: “I wasn’t sure when I could leave my house and there was no one to ask. I ended up waiting for so long before I could go back to work, which was a huge problem.”
Another person complained on Trustpilot about a different provider, claiming that after they didn’t receive results for their day two test, they paid for a ‘Day Five Test to Release Kit’ – which would have allowed them to end their quarantine early on receipt of a negative result – but said “now on day nine, [we] still have no results, so [it was a] waste of £110 plus £175.”
While some providers have blamed delays with Royal Mail deliveries, Royal Mail told Which? there have been no reported delays in its network related to use of the company’s priority post boxes for managing travellers’ test results.
Oncologica, one of the largest laboratories that has partnered with many government-listed test providers, apologised on its website for delays and said there has been an “unprecedented increase in Covid testing enquiries and kit orders received since government travel rules were introduced”. Nationwide Pathology also apologised on its site for “large scale disruption to the delivery of both kits and samples”.
Despite travellers failing to receive their Covid test results on time, many have not been offered refunds. Both Oncologia and Nationwide Pathology said they did not guarantee test results within 10 days, with the latter claiming guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care means that it doesn’t have to provide refunds “where there’s no issue with the testing service”.
Under the proposed traffic light system, arrivals from ‘green’ countries must take day two tests, and those from ‘amber’ and ‘red’ countries must take day two and day eight tests, which will mean hundreds of thousands more people rely on the testing system.
Which? is urging the government to urgently address the problems currently affecting the PCR testing market with regard to availability of information, accreditation, pricing and accessibility of tests, as well as the poor quality of service by some providers. It must also ensure there are effective consumer protections in place for travellers in the event of any problems with testing, ahead of reopening travel after 17 May.
Rory Boland, Which? Travel Editor, said:
“The UK’s travel testing system can’t cope with demand, even when relatively small numbers of people are travelling. It’s clear the system could buckle under the pressure when mass international travel restarts and hundreds of thousands more people are reliant on it.
“Travellers shouldn’t have to shop around for something as crucial as a test provider – they simply need a service that is accessible, reliable, and delivered on time. It is critical that the Government addresses issues with testing ahead of restarting international travel, and ensure that travellers are not left to the mercy of poor quality providers or unreliable services when trying to do the right thing in following government requirements to travel safely.”
Right of Reply:
Oncologica told Which? it can process up to 40,000 Covid-19 tests a day and that it hadn’t yet reached capacity.
A spokesperson said: “Postal service quality is outside our control; however, we make customers aware of the possibility of shipment delays arising from postal deliveries. This can relate to sample returns indicating they have been returned “delivered” in the Royal Mail tracked postal system, whereas in fact samples may not yet have been delivered to Oncologica and only have arrived at a Royal Mail depot, which can take up to 24 hours to deliver onto us. In the vast majority of cases, our customers experience no delays and our kits and results are supplied in a timely manner.”
It said that it couldn’t comment on claims by third party test providers that they’d received its results late.
Nationwide Pathology said: “We recognise the significant frustrations that UK International Arrivals are currently facing and we all are working extremely hard to make the process as user friendly as possible. We also recognise the significant costs involved for families which is why we have consistently, since the start of this process in March 2021, been one of the least expensive providers on the DHSC list.
“Nationwide Pathology is committed to providing the best service possible. We have performed over 80,000 Day 2 and Day 8 covid tests since the end of March 2021. The vast majority of our clients have no issue and are very happy with the service they receive. Our complaints KPI is 0.29%.
“Unfortunately, even though we use Royal Mail, who are a gold standard logistics provider, they have experienced some delays in getting samples to us. We understand how important results are to customers, but we are simply unable to test a sample that we do not have.”
A Royal Mail spokesperson said: “There are no reported delays in our network related to people using Royal Mail’s priority post boxes to manage their test results. In fact we continue to receive praise for the high quality of the service we provide to the nation. Every day we service hundreds of thousands of test kits on behalf of the NHS both speedily and efficiently.
“For overseas travellers, the management of test kits, samples and results is carried out through several private companies. In some instances, some of these companies may use a Royal Mail tracked returns service to deliver test results. In such cases, we deliver mail items in line with the service specification agreed with the sending companies. Every item of mail is important to us. We are committed to delivering the highest levels of service for all our customers.
“We have lots of capacity in our network to continue to deliver these mail items to a high level of service even if there is an increase in demand.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are carefully monitoring issues raised by the public, raising every complaint with private test providers. We also monitor all providers’ performance, including their delivery and test turnaround times.
“We will take rapid action against any company that is providing an inadequate service. In the first instance, they will receive a warning and are given five days to demonstrate they have addressed concerns, and if not, they are removed from the gov.uk list.”
A spokesperson for Anglia DNA Services said: “We unreservedly apologise for any receipt, delivery, and/or processing issues in this case, one of a very small minority of such issues over the last weeks in which we have successfully fulfilled over 10,000 ‘2 and 8’ day tests for our customers. The individual you reference is being fully refunded as is our policy, with our apologies again.”