The Man Who Pays His Way: Government is helping ‘cowboy’ companies profiteer from holidaymakers
Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
In the olden days, when Yellow Pages provided a rich source of business for travel enterprises, US car rental firms went to extremes to be first in the listings. Aardvark Automobiles was always at an advantage – until Aafordable Rentals came along, swiftly followed by AAA1 Rent-a-Car.
In 2021 it is happening again – courtesy of the UK government and its list of travel testing providers. More in a moment.
You (and I) may think it ludicrous that fully vaccinated travellers from “green list” countries must take a test before departure to the UK and an expensive PCR test after arrival. No other European country makes such demands. They see no particular value in multiple tests for low-risk arrivals from low-risk nations. They also prefer to preserve their inbound tourism industries, and the wallets and sanity of their own citizens.
But as with so many aspects of travel during the coronavirus pandemic, the UK is a complete outlier. (One of many examples: arrivals from North America are split between quarantine-free US citizens and must-isolate Canadians.)
The government here insists that multiple testing for arrivals is essential to protect public health. You must pre-book that post-arrival (inaccurately named) “day two” test before you can complete the passenger locator form that will allow you to travel to the UK. While Scotland and Wales insist on a specific provider, price £68, England simply provides a list of companies. The health secretary, Sajid Javid, described some of them as “cowboys”. Yet here they are, including fly-by-night firms that see travel testing as a get-rich-quick scheme with government backing.
Earlier this week one proprietor had worked out that reducing the firm’s name to a single comma would be enough to propel them to the top of the official list of more than 400 test providers. The company formerly known as “,” has now vanished, with the list headed (as of Friday lunchtime at least) by .0.0.44 Tests.
Along with 14 other providers, this enterprise offers £20 PCR tests. Or does it? I have tried a good few of those advertising at this price. Some mail-order firms simply report “Authentication Error” when you try to pay, a problem that seems to vanish when buying higher cost products. Others specify that to get the £20 deal you must usually attend their premises – whether in Stockport, Warrington or Gloucester – but, mysteriously, no appointments seem to be available.
Some firms seize the opportunity of government-assisted marketing to mislead travellers – particularly by claiming you need a test to leave the UK. That is false. Some destinations ask for a test before travel, usually only for unvaccinated travellers, but many do not. No airline, ferry firm or international train operator will ask you for a Covid certificate unless the destination requires one.
Yet at the government’s official website you are a click away from 01 Alpha Express Testing telling you: “Looking to travel for leisure, work, or educational purposes? You will need to present a Fit To Fly Certificate upon departure from the UK.”
I have asked the firm to remove the claim before too many people assume that an official provider linked from a government site will tell the truth, and waste £85 on an unnecessary test.
Earlier in the week I did the same when the Corona Test Centre asserted: “Fit To Fly Test – Required. Mandatory for most flights leaving the UK.” Travellers were invited to spend £129 for a PCR test certificate that was likely to be completely pointless. The firm has now removed the claim and offered to refund customers who were persuaded to pay for worthless tests.
It is ridiculous that I should become directly involved in holding companies to account and persuading them to tell the truth.
The official “choose a provider” website insists: “The government does not endorse or recommend any specific test provider – you should do your own research about them and their terms and conditions.”
Ministers have created travel rules that look a lot more like a deterrent rather that a coherent public health strategy. Yet they are enriching firms that invent nonsense names and make false claims to exploit the complexity and confusion for which the government is squarely responsible. Travellers, and what used to be the world’s leading travel industry, deserve better.