The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) has found there are features of the PCR testing market which mean “competition alone will not deliver the right outcomes for consumers”.
The body said there is a risk of a ‘race to the bottom,’ in which providers compete on grounds other than high clinical quality and travellers end up losing out.
Consumers’ complaints include that they are paying over the odds and receiving poor service, with test kits and results arriving late or not at all.
They also say that, when things do go wrong, they are unable even to contact some providers, let alone get refunds when they are due.
In addition to providing advice to the UK government, the CMA is already using its powers to act where it can.
On August 25th, it published an open letter to all PCR test providers warning them to stay on the right side of consumer law.
On September 3rd, the CMA launched an investigation into Expert Medicals, one of the largest providers in the market, and investigations into other companies are being considered.
Meanwhile, a further 19 test providers have also been told directly by the CMA to improve their pricing information or risk further action.
But the CMA’s review has found that, even with the enforcement of consumer protection law, competition cannot be guaranteed to deliver the right outcomes for consumers in the PCR testing market.
A combination of up-front regulation, monitoring and wider sanctions is needed.
Consumer research also found that being listed on the official government website was the most commonly cited factor in why consumers had chosen a particular provider.
Building on previous advice provided to the Department for Health & Social Care (DHSC), the advice published today makes a number of recommendations, including creating a one-stop shop list of quality, approved test providers by significantly improving the basic standards to qualify for inclusion on the list.
The CMA also suggested introducing a comprehensive monitoring and enforcement programme to ensure providers on the official list meet these basic standards and rules.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: “Buying a PCR travel test is a lottery.
“From complaints about dodgy pricing practices, to unfair terms, to failure to provide tests on time or at all, to problems with getting refunds, the experience for some is just not good enough.
“Recent weeks have underlined that we will not hesitate to take action against any PCR test provider we suspect is breaking the law and exploiting their customers.”
He added: “However, competition alone will not do the job, even when backed by enforcement of consumer law.
“The PCR testing market is unusual because its key features are dictated by Government policy decisions to fight the pandemic.”
The findings come as reports suggest Boris Johnson will scrap the PCR test system in a wider overhaul of travel restrictions later this week.
Commenting on the findings, Rory Boland, Which? travel editor, said: “The government must now urgently set out how it will implement the regulator’s recommendations and ensure safe, reliable and affordable tests are available for all travellers.
“Meanwhile, the regulator must continue to come down strongly on any providers not following the rules, to send a clear message to the rest of the market and prevent any more travellers being left out of pocket.”