When you fly to the UK from a non “red-list” country, you have to self-isolate at home for ten days. Before you even board the plane, you need proof that you’ve purchased two tests – for day two and day eight of your quarantine period.
The first test – to be taken on or before day two of your arrival – is for “variant surveillance”: to monitor which variants of the virus are being brought into the UK. The second test should be taken on or after day eight of the self-isolation period to ensure the individual tests negative before they can mix again.
The government has published a list of providers who deliver this service for the public to choose from. It’s a long list, but at the top is a company called “.001 Doctor” – a clever name which puts it in prime position.
001 Doctor describes itself on its website as a “UK government approved private Covid-19 testing service”, which provides “fast, accurate and reliable PCR screening across the UK”. Yet 001 Doctor hasn’t turned out to be a particularly attentive physician.
The New Statesman has heard from people trapped indoors, some for as long as 16 days, who have either never received their test kits or results, or had them severely delayed.
Alfred Jahn, an employee of the New Statesman, flew back to the UK on Friday 26 March after visiting his family in Austria, where he had been staying since early December.
Before he flew, he paid £185 for his day two and day eight tests from 001 Doctor – chosen because “they were the first on the list”. By day 14, Jahn had still not received results from either test. His day eight test did not even arrive until day 12, with the swab broken.
The broken swab. Photo: Courtesy of Alfred Jahn
“They take your money, they send you a confirmation email, then I arrived in the UK, the next day my first test arrived, it all went to plan, I sent it back the same day – and then, nothing,” Jahn says.
“On day six, I started contacting them. I rang them – I was in a queue for an hour, nothing. I was in a queue for two hours, nothing. I emailed them, the emails actually bounced back saying ‘undeliverable’.”
Throughout this period, it was illegal for him to leave his flat. Ultimately, NHS Test and Trace – which had been calling him daily to check he was still self-isolating – recommended he got tested through the NHS instead. He applied for a test on Easter Sunday, received it the next day, and had a negative result two days later.
This is despite 001 Doctor blaming the Easter post in a generic message sent to customers on Easter Sunday. The firm blamed courier services for failing to guarantee deliveries over the bank holiday weekend, and the Royal Mail Tracked 24 service for delivering samples to its partner laboratory late.
The New Statesman has seen a copy of the message, which is replete with other attempts to shift blame, including criticism of rival test providers and NHS Test and Trace:
“We are not looking to blame anyone, but are actively trying to resolve each case. Many of you have complained that our phone lines are busy, that is true, but it is because our call centre has had over 20 thousand calls every day! No other provider on the day 2/8 scheme has bothered to even set up a call centre at all (except one who is an NHS partner).”
“Finally, a word about the calls that many of you have been getting from the government’s track and trace team. Their call centre has been hounding people with calls and threats of fines. This is unacceptable and we have made an official complaint to the Department of Health.”
The message claims the laboratory has been “inundated” with more demand “than we ever anticipated”, which is surprising since one assumes it knows how many customer payments it has accepted.
“Even though I sent off for the NHS test on Easter Sunday, I got my result two days later – it goes to show there’s nothing wrong with the post, it was literally just that company,” says Jahn.
Other customers have had similar experiences. John Oxley and his wife, who travelled to the UAE and Ukraine for work, returned to the UK on 24 March. They booked their day two and day eight tests through 001 Doctor before flying, at a cost of £182 each.
Their initial tests went smoothly, but the second set of tests arrived late, and by day 16 – when Oxley spoke to the New Statesman – the results still had not arrived. They tried calling and emailing the company multiple times with no luck. “It’s been 16 days since we came back. Is there much more we can really do?” Oxley asks.
“Having done the testing process in three countries, the one in our home country has been the most frustrating process, and also in a way that doesn’t seem very good at actually combating the spread,” he adds.
“I think it’s just encouraging people to get fed up and go out… It’s sort of bizarre that arriving back, you can do whatever the hell you want, but you have to jump through this bureaucratic hurdle of filling in a lot of forms and spending a lot of money.”
(Unlike others the New Statesman has spoken to, Oxley and his wife’s money has been refunded.)
Sven Steinmo and Rita Kungel arrived in the UK from Colorado to visit their grandchildren on 30 March. They also decided to use 001 Doctor for home-testing while they self-isolated for ten days, paying £365 in total for the service.
On the second day, they did not receive their day two tests, which did not arrive until day ten. They were also unable to speak to the company, despite contacting it several times a day.
Although they have been self-isolating, they worry about inadvertently breaking the law simply by not receiving the tests, having received multiple calls each day from NHS Test and Trace reiterating the rules.
“We didn’t receive a test on day two, so were we breaking the law? The whole experience was absurd,” says Steinmo. “It’s intimidating and stupid and expensive.”
Such a patchy system carries risks. The temptation for frustrated people, left in the lurch, to end their quarantine without receiving a test result could risk new variants from abroad spreading in the UK. There is also the costly burden of potential of lost earnings for individuals forced to self-isolate for longer than expected.
This could happen at scale after 17 May, when the new traffic-light system for international travel is due to take effect. Providers running inadequate services receive a five-day warning from the government to demonstrate they have rectified their service. Should they fail to do so, they are supposed to be removed from the gov.uk list, but 001 Doctor remains at the top of the list of providers at the time of writing.
001 Doctor is not the only government-approved Covid-19 test provider under scrutiny. Latus Health, which is also on the official list, has been accused of “appalling” service over delays to £175 test delivery kits for arrivals from abroad.
In common with 001 Doctor, the firm also cited issues with bank holiday post, according to a BBC report, which quoted its managing director blaming “pre-bank holiday delivery delays”.
The directors of 001 Doctor are Lisa Jayne O’Rourke, Ohad Hessel and a GP called Dr Bruce Websdale. Until November 2019, Websdale had worked for the online video consulting team of a private online GP provider called PushDr, since its inception in January 2017.
PushDr has links to the current Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. The minister for health innovation from January 2019 to February 2020, the Conservative peer Nicola Blackwood, is a former paid adviser to PushDr, and also served as minister for public health and innovation in 2016-17 when she was a Tory MP.
In April 2017, the government’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments warned that “there may be a risk that Push Doctor could gain an unfair advantage as a result of Mrs Blackwood-Bate’s contacts gained across government/Whitehall” and noted the “risk around the potential for offering the company an unfair advantage as a result of her time in office”.
Her appointment in January 2019 was announced just days after Hancock released his “NHS Long Term Plan”, which included making digital health services – such as PushDr – “mainstream” in the NHS, and allowing all patients to have access to digital GP consultations. Hancock faced accusations from Labour of “yet another shocking example of the revolving door between highly paid advisory roles and lobbying, and the government”.
Websdale was medical director from 2008-10 of a controversial private firm called Harmoni, which was contracted to run an out-of-hours GP service by the NHS until it was sold to the private health company Care UK in 2012. This buy-out resulted in five shareholder GPs becoming millionaires and accusations of profiteering from coalition-era healthcare marketisation. In 2012, Websdale defended the company against complaints by both a hospital medic and woman whose elderly mother died 40 hours after seeing a Harmoni GP, who appeared intoxicated and unable to work an oxygen machine.
From 2007-09, Websdale was medical director of Primecare, which had its three-year NHS contract for out-of-hours services ended midway through, having been placed in special measures and rated “inadequate” by the Care Quality Commission in 2017.
001 Doctor, which was founded last November as “Doctor.UK (Holdings) Ltd”, changed its name to “001Doctor UK Ltd” on 1 March – not long after the government published guidance for day two and day eight testing providers on 14 February – and then again to “.001 Doctor UK Ltd” on 17 March, shortly after an early list of test providers was published on the government website on 11 March.
Its prestigious-sounding address, in Great Portland Street, central London, can be purchased as a registered office address online. Over 1,400 companies currently list the same address.
The cyber-threat intelligence platform DomainTools suggests that “https://www.001doctor.uk/” was created on 29 January 2021 and appears to be hosted in the Netherlands. It also flags it as a potential phishing site:
Nominet, the official registry for UK domain names, tells the New Statesman it is unable to tell exactly who 001 Doctor’s domain name is registered to, and has followed the standard process of notifying GoDaddy.com – the registrar managing this registration – that it should contact the site and update the data held about it.
The company has a 1.1 score (out of five stars) on the Trustpilot public review site.
The New Statesman has repeatedly emailed 001 Doctor for comment, and repeatedly called its number (the switchboard boasts of 001 Doctor being “a government-approved supplier of Covid testing” before endless hold music). Having sought to make contact since Wednesday 7 April, the New Statesman finally reached a call handler on 12 April, who said no one from management was available to speak but promised a call back. The company has yet to respond.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said:
“We do not endorse or recommend any particular test provider for quarantine test packages and the government ensures that all private providers of Covid-19 tests meet the minimum required standards.
“Tests and providers are both rigorously reviewed by the independent United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) and the list of private test suppliers is continually updated to ensure that the providers listed meet the required standards.
“We carefully monitor issues raised by the public about private test providers and are take action where appropriate, including removing providers from the list.”