Amazon is to start selling low-cost Covid PCR test kits to travellers in a move that promises to shake up a market that has been described as a “rip-off jungle” for consumers.
The government-approved tests, which will be valid for the UK’s day-two, day-eight and “test-to-release” arrivals programmes, cost £34.99 each but will also be offered in discounted bundles. The retailer’s international arrivals service could be launched and listed on the government’s approved list of suppliers as soon as today.
The tests will be processed at Amazon’s lab in Salford, which the retailer set up last year to process tests for employees. It also set up a lab in the US, where it started selling home testing kits in the summer to US shoppers via its website.
Earlier this month Amazon started selling testing kits in the UK too, although they were not suitable for travellers. However it meant the company’s name was added to the official list of Covid test providers.
Amazon’s entry into the market for travel PCR tests follows complaints from some people travelling to the UK that tests provided by some of the small companies that have sprung up to serve the market arrive late or sometimes not at all.
The government has been accused of failing to get a grip on the test market which is once again of vital importance to people in the UK who are hoping to travel abroad this Christmas. It has reintroduced mandatory PCR tests to track the progress and limit the spread of the Omicron variant.
The Guardian recently revealed a slew of PCR testing deals had been removed from the site amid fears consumers were being misled by companies advertising tests for less than a £1. It is understood officials acted on complaints from within the industry that certain providers were manipulating the rankings by advertising ultra cheap deals that were in reality hard to access.
Last week Lord Tyrie, the former chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), called the marketplace a “rip-off jungle”. He said misleading online advertisements, overpricing and unacceptably poor service, had not been eradicated despite having come to light months ago.
The CMA says it has written to 25 PCR providers, warning them to get their house in order or risk enforcement action. It has also begun formal investigations into two companies: Expert Medicals and Dante Labs.
In the autumn, the watchdog made a series of recommendations to the Department of Health and Social Care, which manages the list of test providers. These included “significantly” improving the basic standards needed for inclusion on the list and a “comprehensive monitoring and enforcement programme”.
However, little appears to have changed. Rory Boland, the travel editor at consumer group Which?, said travellers were being “badly let down” in a dysfunctional market where they were exposed to extortionate prices and unreliable providers. “We are yet to see the government take any meaningful action following the CMA’s audit of the private testing system,” he said.
Francis Ingham, the independent director of the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation (LTIO), a trade association where members have signed up to a code of conduct based on the CMA’s recommendations, said customer choice was a “good thing”. “We welcome Amazon’s new offering. Reliability and transparency are vital, so we hope that the company will meet the standards set by LTIO members.”