A Test of Integrity: CMA tells Covid test providers to “get on the right side of the law”

September 14, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have threatened to take enforcement action against Covid test providers after allegations have surfaced of “poor service” which could amount to a breach of consumer protection law. 

What does this mean?

The CMA has sent an open letter to Covid test providers as part of its review of the cost of PCR tests, which highlights a number of questionable practices. These include advertising test prices without including additional charges, failing to deliver tests or provide results on time and refusing to provide a refund to consumers when they are ultimately let down. Sarah Cardell, the CMA’s general counsel, said “test providers should be in no doubt that they need to get on the right side of the law”. Failing to do so will likely result in the CMA pursuing enforcement action against providers that are in breach of consumer protection laws. Such enforcement action may include court proceedings, which may require the breaching providers to remedy their actions and possibly refund consumers. 

What's the big picture effect?

The CMA’s open letter demands that providers must “immediately review their practices and policies…and to make any changes where necessary”. The letter outlines eleven steps that test providers must take to avoid further action from the CMA. This includes being transparent about the full cost of tests and providing “honest, accurate and clear timescales” regarding the delivery of tests. 

In a sector which is estimated to have made £500m since the return of international holiday travel in May, it is no surprise that the CMA has had to step in to protect consumers. The CMA’s open letter follows on from a stern warning made by the UK government threatening to remove 82 test providers from the official gov.uk website if they advertise “misleading prices”. The Department for Health and Social Care confirmed that these 82 companies (18% of providers on the government website) had received two strike warnings for showing lower prices than what was shown at the online checkout. Mrs Cardell confirmed that the CMA warning “goes hand-in-hand with action taken by the Government this week”.

An abundance of companies that offer PCR tests was established at the start of this year after the UK government set out international travel rules that meant that millions of foreign visitors to England were required to take such tests. However, such tests could only be taken if they were supplied by one of these private companies. These new rules caused a “frenzy” among private companies who sought to secure a slice of the private testing market, with many companies attempting to cut corners, resulting in increasing reports of poor service from consumers. 

Rory Boland, travel editor at consumer group Which? said that the CMA intervention is “positive news” but conceded that “this laundry list of problems has left travellers struggling for months”. Moreover, Mr Boland highlighted that travellers are “having to pay the financial penalty when things go wrong”. As it stands, these problems are not going to be resolved overnight. However, now that the CMA has begun pulling its weight, we could see private companies being taken to court over continued violations of consumer protection laws. As this market develops, it is likely that future cases will set a precedent for how these companies should operate under the law.

Report written by Dan Furniss

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