Travellers reporting a failure to receive expensive COVID testing kits or results from private providers has raised fears that the UK’s current system for managing airport arrivals is not fit for purpose.
People arriving in the UK, from countries that are not on the “red list”, currently have to quarantine for 10 days and pay for PCR COVID tests to be taken on day two and day eight to be allowed to leave self-isolation.
The government has a list of providers travellers can purchase the tests from, with companies providing a reference number to be able to board the flight and then sending them the tests at home, with results being emailed.
The providers self-declare they meet the standards, and there are also a limited number of laboratories that can process the tests, which are also testing for variants.
But hundreds of people have reported that the tests have either never arrived, arrived late, or their results have not been returned – and some say companies are refusing to refund them for the tests that cost around £200.
A Facebook group of people complaining about these issues has grown to 1,700 over the past few weeks, with concerns that if this is not sorted ahead of 17 May – the earliest that people in the UK will be allowed to go on foreign holidays – the problem could be much bigger.
There are already “deep concerns” from Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye that the Home Office and UK Border Force are ill-prepared for more airport traffic – and he has warned them to “get a grip” on the checks or change the system ahead of that date.
Agnes Kegl, from Maidenhead, bought tests for her and her son, Aron, for £400, when they returned from Hungary for her work – but did not receive a test kit until 13 days after she arrived in the UK.
She had to purchase more tests from another provider – another £400 – so she could leave quarantine after the NHS COVID helpline responder said she would have to quarantine until she got the tests and negative results.
The government then clarified people could leave quarantine after 14 days without results.
Ms Kegl had to get her bank involved to eventually receive a refund, although it was only £120, after the provider first did not reply and then sent a few different emails saying she would be refunded within different time frames – but it never came.
After she had purchased the tests, the provider she used, which was only set up in November, was taken off the government list with no explanation.
She told Sky News: “It was frustrating and I felt they were trying to monetise COVID – I was in a Catch-22 with having to go back to work but not being able to leave quarantine.”
Meanwhile, Olga Harrison, from Canterbury, purchased the £380 tests for her and her son’s return from Russia but nothing has ever arrived.
She told Sky News: “We had many calls from track and trace asking for our results but we didn’t have the tests and the NHS sent an email saying if nothing arrives, then you can be released from quarantine after the 10th day.
“I was shocked and it made me not believe in the system as it seemed that it wasn’t about the variants, it was like a travel test.
“I was worried we were free to go without any tests because my son’s dad is over 60 and his grandparents are elderly.”
Ms Harrison asked for a refund many times but they would not, and eventually HSBC gave her a ‘charge back’.
“I would expect this in a dictatorship, in countries like Russia where I come from, but I never thought this could happen here – nothing is going to happen to these companies,” she said.
The government has said it “does not endorse or recommend any test provider” and people should do their own research on the providers.
Some laboratories Sky News spoke to blamed Royal Mail and said some people were not returning the tests properly, or only wanted to pay for the reference number to board their flight and not so they could do the tests – although they have to purchase them as a package.
Royal Mail told Sky News it has urged providers to use its tracked service, “although this is not always the case”, and said it services hundreds of thousands of test kits for the NHS every day “both speedily and efficiently”.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced on Thursday that the price of “government-approved commercial PCR tests for travel” will be reduced, with some companies charging as little as £44.90 for one test.
A government spokesman said: “We are carefully monitoring issues raised by the public, raising every complaint with private test providers.
“We also monitor all providers’ performance, including their delivery and test turnaround times.
“We will take rapid action against any company that is providing an inadequate service.”