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There are hundreds of private Covid test companies to choose from when heading abroad, but that's part of the problem. Who can you trust? We carried out a mystery shop to find those providers that deliver the service on time, and those Covid test providers you should avoid.
From firms that can't deliver tests or results on time to dodgy companies that won't offer refunds, finding a cheap, reliable Covid test provider for your holiday has been difficult. The government's own list of test providers has even featured cowboy firms. To help, Which? has investigated dozens of testing providers and mystery shopped several to check they provide tests and results on time.
The latest government rules, which came into effect on 9 January 2022 mean that vaccinated travellers returning to the UK from a green list country now must take only a day 2 lateral flow test, as opposed to a day 2 PCR test when returning to the UK.
We purchased PCR tests when mystery shopping providers, because delivering this service is more complex than that required for a day two lateral flow test. For a PCR test the provider needs to deliver both the test and lab results on time. Lateral flow tests produce results at home without being posted to a lab, so the provider needs only to deliver the test on time.
In short, the providers here recommended for PCR tests should also deliver a good service for lateral flow tests.
To find reliable, budget-friendly firms we looked at the 50 cheapest providers of home testing PCR kits on Gov.uk. All of them charged £60 or less for a day two PCR test on the day we started our investigation. However, in many cases the price on their own website was much higher than that on the government’s site. We only selected firms where the price shown on Gov.uk was genuinely available for home delivery.
We also checked that they allow refunds if you need to cancel your order and that they abide by data protection laws. We also only included those that allow you to send tests back by easily accessible priority Royal Mail boxes, rather than making you use their own dropbox or a different courier with fewer post boxes.
After we'd done this, we ended up with a shortlist of just four firms to mystery shop. Each provider was mystery-shopped 13 times, checking whether test kits and results arrived on time. You can see how many times all four providers passed or failed out of 13 below.
All of the firms have at least begun the accreditation process run by the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS), which checks they meet minimum standards for providing tests, but we’ve also recorded below whether they’ve completed the whole process and been officially accredited – a factor which might give you extra peace of mind.
The four companies that made our short-list and how they compare for reliability, customer service and refund policies.
Mystery shop result: 12 out of 13 on time
Verdict: The most reliable choice when we checked, however the price has dropped significantly since then – which does mean they'll be dealing with far more orders.
We were optimistic about Source Bioscience when we saw the largely good reviews and lack of complaints online. This was backed up by excellent results in our mystery shop, with all the tests and all the results arriving on time, except for one that appeared to have been delayed by Royal Mail. It's also fantastic news that the price has dropped from £60 when we checked to just £35. Unfortunately, since the price drop a warning has appeared on its website stating that: 'We are currently experiencing despatch delays, please bear with us.'
Hopefully any issues will be resolved soon as its refund policy is also quite reasonable. You can get your money back within 14 days of making the order, as long as you haven’t opened the test kit. Its laboratory is also fully accredited. The only other issue was a clause in its terms and conditions that we think unfairly limits its liability if it provides results late.
Without that clause we would have been able to make it a Which? Recommended Provider. It told us that it considers its terms to be fair and transparent. It also said ‘like most test providers, we recognise that there are a high number of factors that can impact turnaround time, with a good many outside our control.’
Mystery shop result: 10 out of 13 on time
Verdict: good value, with the best refund policy and customer service.
Testing For All was our favourite before carrying out the mystery shop. It has a generous refund policy, which promises you your money back if the test arrives more than two days late. We've placed it second after Source Bioscience in our line-up. It’s a not-for-profit and manages to have good reviews online despite its relatively low price. Tests are analysed at a fully accredited laboratory (Nonacus) and its website is user-friendly. Unfortunately, the week we did our mystery shop it had some problems. All the kits arrived by day two, but three of the thirteen test results were delayed because of an issue registering them, although we did get results immediately after chasing by email. It apologised for the issues and told us that this was a one-off that it had been able to fix quickly.
Mystery shop result: 12 out of 13 on time.
Verdict: a good result in our mystery shop, but Testing For All has a better refund policy
A multinational conglomerate that carries out tests throughout Europe as well as the UK, Eurofins has long had full accreditation. It received some complaints online for late tests in the early days of the pandemic, but our results were reasonably impressive, with only one test result delayed. It allows refunds but, even if you haven’t received your test kit yet, you still have to pay a £15 admin fee.
Mystery shop result: 11 out of 13 on time
Verdict: two results were lost but, since our contact, it has improved its terms and conditions.
Rainbow Labs promises ‘hassle-free’ tests, but two of our test results didn’t arrive. One was lost, it told us, because of an error at the laboratory. We’re waiting to find out what happened to the other.
In both cases we weren't automatically offered a refund but it says that, since our contact, it’s changed its terms and conditions to make sure anyone who doesn’t get results within 48-hours of the lab’s receipt of the sample can get their money back. It says on its website that it uses accredited laboratories but most of our tests were sent to a lab, PeploBio, that isn’t accredited yet – although it is going through accreditation. Cancellations and refunds are allowed, but only if you haven’t received your test yet – not after it’s arrived.
Many of the firms on the government’s list of providers are intermediaries, who buy from the laboratories and then sell to you. Below we’ve compared the six laboratories that sold direct to the public for £60 or less when we looked.
We didn’t mystery shop Biograd Diagnostics because, at the time, it listed tests on gov.uk for £25. But it wasn’t clear until you clicked through that this price was only available if you worked for the NHS. It does now list the correct price (£50) on the government website, although there’s also a £5 postal charge. NHS staff can still get tests for half price. This firm does allow refunds if the test hasn’t been sent out or if you return it unopened at your own expense. Tests are analysed at its own, accredited laboratory.
Oncologica is the major laboratory behind many smaller providers on the gov.uk list and Coronafocus is the brand it uses to sell direct to the public. It has long been accredited and handles huge numbers of tests a day. We didn’t include it in the mystery shop because it doesn’t allow you to cancel your order or return your test, even if it hasn’t been opened. It says that this is ‘due to health protection or hygiene reasons’ – but other firms do let you return tests.
Another laboratory that also handles tests for smaller providers, Dante has been the subject of numerous complaints online. In September the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) stepped in to investigate whether it was: ‘not delivering PCR tests and/or results on time or at all. Failing to respond to complaints or provide proper customer service. Refusing or delaying refunds when requested and using T&Cs which may unfairly limit consumers’ rights.’
Despite this it’s still on the Gov.uk list and has reduced its price from £48 to £39. It’s not yet fully accredited, though says it is working to complete the final stage ‘as soon as possible’. It told us it had invested significantly in ‘lab capacity and customer service’ and was working with the CMA to improve.
For an obvious reason – it’s cheap – many people have continued to use the notorious Expert Medicals despite the fact that it’s been removed from the government’s list and it’s under investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). We’d been reporting delayed tests and results, as well as other issues, for months before this. The government’s rules do allow you to use firms that aren’t on the official list but say ‘you must check they meet minimum standards.’ However, we can’t see any way that it’s actually possible for you to make those checks. We advise you not to use it.
When we looked, Nationwide Pathology was the cheapest provider whose price listed on Gov.uk was genuinely available for home delivery, with the exception of Expert Medicals. It’s another big lab, accredited months ago, which handles a huge number of tests. However, we didn’t include it in the mystery shop because it has a very poor refund policy that states that ‘the service is deemed to have been provided in full by the Supplier by providing the Client with their Passenger Locator Number.’ In other words, even if the test gets lost in the post, Nationwide Pathology claims that it doesn’t have to provide a refund.
‘The UK’s largest testing provider,’ according to its website, Randox has been providing tests since near the start of the pandemic and it became fully accredited in October 2021.
The £43 price we found listed on Gov.uk is only for those with a discount code – although it is easily found on the websites of various airlines.
Randox also asks customers to send tests back through its network of drop-boxes rather than using Royal Mail, which can feel more of a faff if there isn’t one nearby. It says that this is ‘a key aspect of enabling the timely return of results.’ However, it does say that you can send tests back by a different courier ‘at your own risk’. It also says that there are no refunds and no right to cancel, because each kit has a personalised booking number.
We looked at the 50 cheapest test providers on Gov.uk from 19-23 August – all those that charged £60 or less for home delivered tests. We then applied various criteria (see above) to narrow our list down to seven providers to ‘mystery shop’. One of these was removed for practical reasons (it asked for proof of our journey to UK, which made it impossible to continue), two others were removed for legal reasons (data security and terms and conditions).
We carried out the mystery shop between 31 August and 20 September, asking fieldworkers from around the country to buy 13 tests from each of the four remaining providers. We then checked whether test kits arrived by our chosen day two, and whether results arrived within 72 hours of us sending samples back.
Above, we’ve reviewed the four firms we mystery shopped, plus the six laboratories from the Gov.uk list that sold directly to the public for £60 or less when we looked (Expert Medicals has subsequently been removed from the Gov.uk list). Prices on the list are constantly changing, so there may now be other providers for a similar cost.
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