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16 April 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 5:57am

Missing kits, wrong results and high prices: The great Covid-19 travel test rip-off

A broken market of private test providers is frustrating the quarantine process and risking the spread of new variants.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On Wednesday 14 April, Benjamin received an email from a private Covid-19 test provider called 001 Doctor. It contained a link to a page that informed him he had tested negative for coronavirus.

For most recipients, such an email would be a relief. But for Benjamin (who did not want his real name published), it was a surprise. He hadn’t even done a test yet.

Having returned to the UK from Germany on 1 April, he had paid £182 for the day two and day eight tests required while self-isolating for ten days after travelling from non red-list destinations. But he received the test kits so late he had eventually opted to rebook via a different provider.

As the New Statesman revealed three days ago, customers of 001 Doctor – a government approved service at the top of the official list of test providers – have been receiving both test kits and results late.

[See also: Trust me, I’m 001 Doctor: The shapeshifting private health firm mishandling quarantine]

Benjamin received the mistaken negative result on day 14, four days after he should have been able to come out of self-isolation.

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“I informed 001 Doctor of their mistake in the hopes that the person who actually took the test might get their results,” says Benjamin.

An “erroneous batch of Covid-19 test results” were sent to 001 Doctor customers over email on 14 April, according to an email sent to customers by the company’s partner laboratory, BioGrad Diagnostics, on the evening of 14 April, seen by the New Statesman.

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“The links to these erroneous results have now been invalidated and all impacted individuals have been informed,” the email states. “This error has been reported to the appropriate authorities and a full investigation has been undertaken with remedial actions put in place to ensure that this never happens again.”

The lab, which says it handles thousands of Covid-19 samples each day, also admitted “overwhelming demand has caused some delays in our processes in recent days”.

The New Statesman has asked BioGrad and 001 Doctor how many erroneous results were sent out, and how many were positive and negative. They did not provide answers to those specific questions.

BioGrad responded:

“BioGrad Diagnostics inadvertently issued an erroneous batch of Covid-19 test results to 001Doctor.UK which were then passed on to 001Doctor.UK customers in good faith via e-mail. The links to these erroneous results have now been invalidated and all impacted individuals have been informed.

“This error has been reported to the appropriate authorities and a full investigation has been undertaken with remedial actions put in place to ensure that this never happens again. BioGrad would like to apologise to 001Doctor.UK and the customers who have received results in error.”

A response from 001 Doctor forwarded to the New Statesman by BioGrad said:

“We’re also sorry this happened. As soon as BioGrad informed us of the error we investigated the situation and took immediate steps to make sure nothing like this could happen again.”

A mistake such as this could mean that some people wrongly believed they had tested negative and broke their quarantine after arriving in the UK from abroad. This could result in reinfections and new variants spreading in the community.

“There is a chance that many people are now using this result to end their self-isolation whether they really have a test result or not,” says Benjamin.

This is just the latest mishap in the chaotic world of home-testing in the UK. A long list of private companies offering Covid-19 tests have been approved by the government and are listed on its website (although references to “day two and day eight” tests on 001 Doctor’s website have disappeared since 13 April, the day after the New Statesman reported problems with this service).

Other test providers approved by the government have also been accused by customers of long delays to send out test kits and results.

Qured, another listed provider that sells day two and day eight tests for £210 has a “poor” rating on the review site Trustpilot. Jacob Stevens, who flew back to the UK on 10 April, received his day two test a day late and when we speak on day six, he still hasn’t received a result from it. Despite multiple attempts to contact the company, he hasn’t managed to get in touch.

“They do not even list a contact number – their website provides no way to call them,” he tells me. “They do provide an automated chatbot, which cannot answer individual queries, and an email address, which they have not yet replied to. It all appears to have been set up impenetrably to evade awkward questions like: ‘Where is the test I paid £210 for?’”

The New Statesman has contacted Qured for comment and attempted to grapple with said chatbot, with no response at the time of publication.

Latus Health, also on the official list, has been accused of “appalling” service over delays to £175 test delivery kits for arrivals from abroad.

In stark contrast to the efficient NHS testing regime, a shoddy market of overwhelmed and overpriced private providers is building up around home-testing, with the government’s blessing.

Such a poor service risks people breaking self-isolation early and spreading the virus and new variants in the community. The delay in day two tests also means the government is alerted to new variants that have entered the country late.

It is also difficult to determine why the price of some of these services is so high. The average cost of PCR tests for overseas travel in the UK is £141, according to a recent report by The Times. Indeed, one of the country’s biggest test providers called Randox has announced it will offer such testing for £60 in a commitment to “effective and economical testing to support holidaymakers”.

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, called the privately provided tests “very expensive”, and condemned companies “who seem to be profiteering from this rather than providing good, well-priced, convenient tests” in an interview with Times Radio on 9 April.

Shapps warned that he would look at removing providers from the list to avoid people “being ripped off”, but a week after that warning, travellers to the UK are still receiving a poor service, and companies such as 001 Doctor are still listed on the government website.

The government says it does not “endorse or recommend any particular test provider for quarantine test packages” and ensures they all “meet the minimum required standards”.

Update 12.01pm 26/4/21

After the time of writing and stated deadline, a representative of Qured responded to the New Statesman offering to contact the customer quoted in this piece whose test result was delayed. They did not respond, however, to the two points put to them by the New Statesman that a) the customer in question had not received his Day 2 test kit by day three, and b) the customer was unable to get in touch with Qured.