Private companies are exploiting international travelers with outrageous COVID-19 testing costs
- Testing for my family of four to travel from the UK to Spain cost £550, or $762.
- There is no reason that testing needs to cost this much, especially when there are free at-home tests available.
- Private companies are jacking up prices, making overseas travel out of reach for many.
- Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance writer, journalist and editor based in the UK.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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PCR testing has emerged as a multi-billion dollar industry, and the UK is the world's second most expensive place for COVID travel tests, behind only the US. With extortionate prices for PCR tests, overseas holidays were pushed off-limits for many UK families this year, making trips abroad a luxury of the better off.
Determined to visit our ramshackle old farmhouse in the Andalusian mountains in Spain where myself, my husband, and our two boys lived for the better part of a decade, we had no choice but to pay the exorbitant expense of COVID travel testing.
The compulsory testing equated to an additional £550 ($762) on top of the cost of the holiday, and the sum would have been significantly higher if myself and my husband had not been fully vaccinated. The Spanish government requires all arrivals to Spain from Britain to show a negative PCR test taken within 72 prior to arrival, or proof of full vaccination - our unvaccinated teenage sons had to have a PCR test before leaving the UK at the cost of £70 ($97) each.
The majority of the COVID testing budget was spent on re-entering Britain, where a compulsory day two test administered by Randox - hailed as the UK's largest COVID-19 PCR testing provider - cost us £240 ($332).
This was on top of the 160 euros we had to pay just a couple of days earlier to acquire a negative COVID antigen test certificate in order to leave Spain. This nasal swab test, like the rapid 'self tests' that are provided for free for domestic use in Britain, doesn't have to be sent off to a laboratory and provides results within 30 minutes. The tests were administered by a doctor in a private clinic in our local Spanish town.
At one level, some may argue that charging for COVID testing to travel is not unreasonable. If people choose to travel abroad during these precarious times, they should be charged accordingly, and should bear in mind the additional cost of PCR tests before booking their holidays - a "you've made your bed, now lie in it" attitude.
However, rather than merely being a matter of choice that comes with additional financial burden, excessive COVID travel costs symbolize escalating inequality in the wake of the pandemic. As many private firms enjoy a COVID windfall, making huge profits on testing, the less wealthy are forced to forgo holidays abroad as travel becomes something only the rich can afford.
The 'cheaper' tests are unavailable
Others who took the plunge and travelled overseas this summer cite similar grievances about the cost of testing. Paula Kowalska recently returned from travelling to an "amber" country - a nation sandwiched between the "safe" green countries that require no quarantine regardless of vaccination status and the "high-risk" red countries on the UK government's travel traffic light system. Kowalska said she was shocked to find the tests she had bought less than a month ago for £35 were no longer available, replaced by ones that cost £60-£70.
"The government website advises the availability of £20 tests. However, these are so limited they are never available or are available by appointment only in certain locations, with 4 or 5 slots a day only," she told me.
And yet, COVID testing for travel purposes in certain countries is significantly cheaper and, in some instances, free - indicating that there are bigger issues at play.
A friend of mine, who has dual Czech and British citizenship, recently travelled back to Britain from the Czech Republic. The COVID test she was required to take before leaving the Czech Republic and re-entering Britain was offered for free since she was a Czech citizen.
Some nations are even using COVID tests for travel as a political tool. France offered free COVID tests for tourists. However, as of July 7, 2021, the French government decided to make tourists pay for tests, stating it was about "reciprocity," since French tourists are required to pay for tests abroad. When they want to, nations can and are providing free COVID testing for travellers, so what gives in the UK?
To shed light on the contentious cost of COVID tests for travel, I spoke to Hussain Abdeh, director at Medicine Direct, a UK-based online pharmacy.
Abdeh explained how any medical product that is sold in the UK needs to meet certain regulatory standards.
"Simply put, all PCR tests that are available in the UK meet the same standards of accuracy regardless of the prices they are sold for," Abdeh said.
He explained the possible origins of pricing differences, saying it could be due to different manufacturing costs or wholesale costs. But this is problematic given that, as Abdeh pointed out to me, usually we would see bigger brands like Boots and Lloyds offering the cheapest prices, due to their buying power and discounts. This, however, is not the case with PCR tests, as Boots seem to be one of the most expensive on the UK market, currently at £79.
"However, with that said, the UK is allowing travel from some countries that offer a free PCR testing service such as Germany and Italy. This tells me that the free PCR testing services being offered by those countries also meet the standards for PCR tests that have been implemented in the UK," Abdeh told me.
The inconsistency in costs suggests an incentive of profiteering is at play.
The UK's "test to travel" scheme has prompted concerns about Tory cronyism - whereby Conservative Party officials grant contracts to donors and connections so they can profit from the crisis.
Some of the private firms that are milking the PCR travel test market, like the Northern Ireland-based firm Randox, have links to members of the UK Conservative party. In April, Randox proudly asserted it was "supporting UK holidaymakers by reducing the cost of PCR tests to support travel to £60 per test" - again proving that the costs of tests don't need to be as high as they are.
In November 2020, without any competition, the UK government awarded Randox, whose testing kits were recalled in the summer of 2020 because of concerns about contamination, a £347 million COVID testing contract.
Despite being awarded nearly half a billion pounds in taxpayer money, Randox continues to privately charge citizens from £86 for a travel test-at-home kit consisting of a pre-departure PCR test, a day two PCR test, and a travel certificate.
New rules confirm prices don't need to be so high
When I reached out to the Department of Health and Social Care for commentary on the cost of COVID travel tests, they stated:
"Our top priority has always been protecting the public and the robust border and testing regime we have in place is helping minimise the risk of new variants coming into the UK.
We are reviewing all private providers to ensure they meet our robust standards and over 80 private travel testing companies have been issued a two-strike warning for inaccurate pricing and face removal from the gov.uk list if they do so again."
On September 17, a major update on international travel rules in England was announced. New lighter testing requirements are being introduced as the government seeks to give the struggling travel sector a boost ahead of state support coming to an end this month. The overhaul means that as of October 4, people who have had two jabs will no longer need to take a COVID test before entering England. Later in October, the day two PCR tests will be able to be replaced with cheaper lateral flow tests.
For me, the scrapping of expensive test requirements and complicated travel arrangements, following months of outrage from the tourism sector and travelers, is yet more proof of the profiteering out of travel tests that has been going on for months.
It's not like the changes are being made due to the virus shrinking. On the contrary, studies show that for some weeks now there has been a worrying waning of immunity as confirmed cases rise.
Choosing the scrap pricey tests after the summer holiday rush, as doctors warn that the country is heading to a "knife-edge" winter for the NHS, shows that the testing was fundamentally used as a means of profit from the start.
And, for families who had to forgo a holiday this year due to unfeasible additional costs, the costs are a stark exemplar at the new societal inequalities created by policy response to the pandemic.