“Daylight swabbery”

Screenshots of the Guardian and the Daily Star


It’s not often that I derive inspiration from the front page of the Daily Star, but there we have it: this front page synthesised and articulated my feelings about the sheer bare-faced exploitation which has all too often characterised so much of the ‘economic activity’ surrounding the management of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK. What follows is not intended as a detailed analysis of all provision of testing in the UK, simply my observations as a UK citizen who has needed testing to conform with travel requirements before certain events and before coming into contact with potentially vulnerable people … and one who needs to be careful and as risk-free as possible, by virtue of my own age and health issues, and in particular to protect my immuno-compromised wife.

Lateral thinking

When we travelled to Spain back in June, we used lateral flow tests (LFTs) to reassure ourselves that we were not taking the virus to that country. Immediately we arrived we felt safer (as I have explained elsewhere), given that the rules on the wearing of face-masks and social distancing were much tighter in Spain … and the degree of compliance much greater than in the UK. Still, we took LFTs regularly to reassure the locals in ‘our’ village, including the mayor, that we were ‘clean’! We were able to buy LFTs from our local chemist at a quite reasonable price, and a bit cheaper at another chemists in a busier shopping area.

Three weeks or so before returning to the UK we booked and paid online for the compulsory Day 2 PCR tests we would have to do after arrival. They arrived at our UK address a few days later. We also booked PCR tests at a clinic in Nerja; negative results in these were necessary for us to be able to complete our Passenger Locator Forms for Brittany Ferries. Without these results, we would not be allowed to board the ferry. Not the cheapest, but convenient, and we felt reasonably confident of the clinic’s efficiency. We paid extra to receive the results later that same day: they arrived at around 11pm along with the e-certificate – both negative. Two days later we arrived in Santander to queue for the ferry; the eagle-eyed official who checked our boarding documentation noticed that the passport number on the PCR certificate didn’t tally with the passport number on my Passenger Locator Form: I might be refused entry to the UK. A quick phone call to the clinic in Nerja prompted an almost instant response by email with my corrected PCR certificate … and a profuse apology at having put the wrong passport number onto the certificate. All this happened remarkably quickly in the space of a few minutes, and before we boarded the Pont-Aven. Hence all of our documentation was in order when we landed in Plymouth on Friday 21 August.

PCR = Politically Condoned Robbery

The day after arriving home we did the Day 2 PCR tests, which we had ordered while away from UKHealth Testing (UKHT), one of the laboratories on the government’s approved list. We packed the samples in the Royal Mail Tracked 24 packaging provided and posted them in the priority post-box at our local Royal Mail depot. The following Wednesday we were becoming concerned at not having received the negative results we needed, so I tried ringing the laboratory … the first of dozens of fruitless phone-calls to them made over the following few days, always with the response: “too busy, please try later”. However, my email provoked a fairly quick response: “We were unable to analyse your samples as they didn’t arrive within the 72 hours stipulated by the government; the packaging said not to post them on a Saturday”. OK, in our haste to get the samples done and send them off on Day 2 after our arrival, we hadn’t noticed the instruction. Surely though, given the Royal Mail Tracked 24 packaging, the samples should still have arrived on the Monday or Tuesday, thus within the time limit for testing.

Priority Mail

The Saturday after taking our PCR tests, and following a sequence of extremely unhelpful email exchanges with the laboratory, I went to the customer service office at our postal depot. I was assured that our sample package would have been dealt with when the priority post-box was emptied at 2pm. All samples, whether destined for NHS or private labs, were sent in one batch to the Exeter depot for fine-sorting and despatch to the various laboratories. Therefore, our package should have arrived at the UKHT laboratory on the Monday; I was assured that, if not, we would be entitled to claim full compensation from Royal Mail. Later that afternoon I rang Royal Mail Customer services: I was told the same. I just needed the postage details. But there was one problem: I had already asked the lab for details of their contract with Royal Mail and the tracking information for our package. My request had been met with a blank refusal. More on my hunt for compensation later …

Two aspects of all this are of ongoing concern: first, that at no stage did anybody check on our lack of a negative PCR result, nor on whether we might have been spreading coronavirus around as soon as we left home. Had we been infected during our journey across Spain or on the ferry, we might have been Covid time-bombs. In one of my follow-up emails to the testing laboratory, I asked them to provide new test kits on a goodwill basis. No chance … So, to this day, we are technically ‘Covid criminals’ as far as our situation was concerned at the end of last August! We’ve been to Spain and back since then, taken LFTs, and my wife has taken PCR tests: all negative, but we never did have that ‘Covid green light’ last August!

Further to this, one of our daughters, with husband and two sons, were booked ­– and paid for –  on flights to Spain last August. They abandoned their holiday plan last minute when they calculated how much eight PCR tests would cost. They lost the cost of the flights they didn’t take.

The other aspect of concern – or rather indignation – is that we had paid £118 for two PCR tests that were never processed. I feel cheated – angry even – that to this date there has been no recompense. Now, nit-picking readers might think ‘serves them right for not following the instructions to the letter’, however, Royal Mail had stated that there was no reason why packages posted on a Saturday would not arrive on the following Monday, or at latest on the Tuesday. In reaction to the total stonewalling of the laboratory I decided to try to obtain compensation.

Can we claim?

My first port of call was my bank. Having used my credit card to pay UKHT for the tests, I contacted their credit disputes department in mid-September. It was a long time before they got to grips with my case and finally asked me to submit all the relevant correspondence electronically; there were no fewer than ten emails in total. I assumed that they would pursue a claim with UKHT. However, just before Christmas they informed me that they could not take my claim any further.

So, I tried Royal Mail. Equally fruitless, but at least this attempt didn’t drag out for so long. They explained that to pursue a claim against Royal Mail for late delivery of our PCR sample I would need details of UKHT’s contract with them … I had asked UKHT for this, but with no reply. I asked Royal Mail if they kept records of tracking numbers, only to be told that they didn’t. Again, UKHT had not responded to my request for the tracking numbers of our PCR sample. Ironically, I was able to find the tracking number for the package in which the sample kit had been sent to us … and was still able to track it to delivery at our address months afterwards!

Hence, we are still down by £118, and I hold UKHT entirely responsible; not just for having denied me the information I needed to make a claim from Royal Mail – if the package had indeed been delivered as many as four days after postage using the Tracked 24 service. If, as I suspect, the package arrived within reasonable time, and in time for our sample to be analysed, then I could justifiably have sought redress from UKHT. How easy would it be for overworked laboratory staff simply to throw any packages posted on a Saturday into the waste bin … plausible? If ours had been an isolated case, maybe not, but many other people had similar experiences with other laboratories.

Cowboy outfits?

At the time I was corresponding with UKHT an article on the subject of unsatisfactory provision of PCR tests was published on 27 August in the Guardian. Star of the show in this article was no less a company than Boots, but customers of other providers were having the same sort of problems, so we were not alone. At the end of this article, readers who had experienced problems with PCR tests were invited to report them:

“Email: ‘your­.problems@observer.co.uk’. Include an address and phone number. Submission and publication are subject to our terms and conditions”.

I had threatened UKHT that I would contact the press, but I never got round to it, relying on contacting UKHT myself, but to no avail.

Fast forward a few months, during which time the press in the UK and abroad produced many articles about the PCR rip-off. One of the worst cases was described on 6 December in the Daily Mail: “Travel testing rip-off: ‘Cowboy’ firms offer 30p PCR tests then charge TWO HUNDRED times more”. On 24 December the Spanish paper El Mundo ran an article under the headline: “El fraude de los test Covid en Reino Unido” (the Covid test fraud in the UK). It goes on: “Los tests del Covid vuelven a ser un maná para las así llamadas ‘compañías cowboys’, que ofrecen precios ‘low cost’ en el propio portal del Gobierno británico y luego cobran sin escrúpulos tres, cinco y hasta 200 veces más de lo que anuncian”. (Covid tests are once again manna for the so-called ‘cowboy companies’, who offer ‘low cost’ on the British government’s actual portal and then with no scruples charge 3, 5 and even 200 times more than they advertise.)

Baddies and Goodies

Standing right back from the impact of these problems on the individual, it is not encouraging to discover the extreme profiteering perpetrated by those who have exploited the opportunity the pandemic offered. On 14 January 2022 The Guardian ran an article entitled: “Covid created 20 new ‘pandemic billionaires’ in Asia, says Oxfam”. An Oxfam spokesperson states in the article: “While rich and privileged men increase their fortunes and protect their health, Asia’s poorest people, women, low-skilled workers, migrants and other marginalised groups are being hit hardest”.

By contrast, in Spain, a country which has demonstrably coped well – mostly – with the pandemic, the government has set a maximum price for lateral flow tests to ensure that customers are not ripped off in the way that so many have been in the UK over PCR tests. According to the online news of the TV station Canal Sur, the policy was announced in the Boletín Oficial del Estado (BOE) to reassure people that prices would be kept down even though supermarket chains, which had hoped to be allowed to sell LFTs, would not be permitted to sell them.

Bombs and broomsticks

In thinking about the way in which, during the pandemic, the needs of ordinary citizens have been exploited by ruthless people, I was reminded of two situations in which this sort of thing is illustrated, in fiction and in fact. In an episode of Foyle’s War, the TV detective series set during World War Two, a group of fire-wardens looted the bombed buildings they were sent to. I also remembered the story of how similarly unscrupulous people would sell bags of chopped up broomsticks to drunks boarding their homebound trains in Blackpool, advertising them as bags of Blackpool rock. Again, totally immoral, taking advantage of people in need. It seems totally immoral to most of us that anyone could consider the pandemic to be an opportunity to make money. However, it is no secret that many in government favoured their friends and acquaintances when awarding contracts. So much so that one might even refer to the pandemic in the style of the Daily Star: this period could justifiably be recorded in history as the Cronyviruspandemic.

Postscript: checking through my emails from last August as I wrote this article, I rediscovered a message sent by The Good Law Project on 18 August, two days before our ‘PCR adventure’ began. It explains how to go about claiming compensation from what it calls ‘cowboy PCR testing companies’. Hmmm – perhaps I should give it a go!

From: Jo Maugham – Good Law Project <updates@goodlawproject.org>
Sent: 18 August 2021 14:07
To: Mike Zollo
Subject: They are charging a fortune for PCR tests

Dear Mike,

Cowboy PCR testing companies are fleecing ordinary people out of hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. They are charging a fortune for PCR tests and then often failing to deliver the tests or results when promised.

These companies are looking to profit from the misery of the pandemic, with little regard for the people whose money they’re taking. We don’t think they should be allowed to get away with it. If you’ve been affected, here’s how you can try and get your money back.

The first step is sending a complaint email to the company. We’ve prepared a template email. All you need to do is fill in a few of the details about what’s happened to you, find the email address for the company, which will be on its website, and hit send.

Click the button below to download the template email or copy and paste it:

Once you’ve sent the email, here’s what will happen next:

You should set up an account on the Government’s site, Money Claim Online. It’s free and if you set up your account now it means you can escalate your claim with the small claims court quickly if you don’t receive a refund. https://www.moneyclaim.gov.uk/web/mcol/welcome

If the company doesn’t provide you with a refund, and you think your claim is one worth pursuing, Good Law Project will prepare a template claim form that you can edit as you see fit and submit to the small claims court. We’ll email this to you.

At this point, if you do have a good claim it’s very likely the company will provide you with a refund. It will be cheaper for them to pay than fight the claim. If they don’t, Good Law Project will share a skeleton claim that will be free for everyone to use.

Or if you know someone else who might have been affected by this issue, you can share this link with them: https://glplive.org/pcr-tests-letter

The law is a tool to hold the powerful to account. We have badly-behaved businesses, as well as politicians, firmly in our sights.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, what’s in it for Good Law Project? The answer is nothing. We just don’t like seeing people being taken advantage of. If you get your money back you may choose – it’s completely up to you – to make a small donation to us to enable us to do more work like this. But that’s it.

Thank you,

Jo Maugham – Good Law Project