A Covid testing laboratory that appears near the top of the government’s list of approved providers has never been accredited to process medical samples for any virus, despite displaying an accreditation number on its website.
Doctor-N-London Ltd is one of the most prominent results on the government’s website which lists hundreds of providers for people needing a day two PCR test after arriving in the UK.
The gov.uk site links directly to Doctor-N-London’s homepage which claimed the company was set up to “challenge those looking to exploit people during the pandemic” and that it “operates under UKAS Number 22542” – a reference to the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (Ukas).
Ukas investigated the matter after being alerted by The Independent and confirmed that neither Doctor-N-London or its trading name Spectrum Medica is accredited as a Covid testing lab or for any other purpose.
Doctor-N-London subsequently removed the Ukas number from its website – but the company, which advertises its clinic address at a Holiday Inn in Kensington, remains on the government’s list of approved providers.
Companies without accreditation are allowed on the government’s list as long as they have submitted an application to Ukas and have “self-certified” that their details are correct. There is no suggestion that Doctor-N-London has not complied with this requirement.
Doctor-N-London said the Ukas number had been placed on its website due to “an error from our IT team partners, and as soon as we found out we took advice from Ukas and removed it”.
The company said it had a team of “three clinical doctors, a geneticist doctor, a [Health and Care Professions] registered scientist and a senior engineer.
“We are compliant with all the necessary requirements to run a Covid testing lab.”
Rory Boland, Which? travel editor, said consumers had been “let down” by the government list of PCR providers.
“It still shows firms which have misleading prices, fail to provide tests on time or aren’t using accredited labs.
“Now the government has reintroduced pre-departure and PCR day two tests for all travellers, it must swiftly implement the CMA’s recommendations and ensure safe, reliable and affordable tests are available.”
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which is in charge of the government list, said it could not comment on individual cases but that all testing providers appearing on gov.uk must comply with “strict minimum standards so that the public can have confidence in the quality of tests provided”.
The finding again throws a spotlight on lightly regulated Covid testing industry which the government has failed to clamp down on despite months of warnings about huge mark-ups, poor customer service, tests going missing and companies disappearing.
The sector has been labelled a “rip-off jungle” by Lord Tyrie, former chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Lord Tyrie told the BBC last week that “it appears that some of the worst practices – misleading online advertisements; overpricing; unacceptably poor service among them – are still widespread”.
Lax controls have allowed companies to jump to the top of the gov.uk list by offering tests for as little as 30p – tests which are not actually available.
Prior to that, companies were ranked in alphabetical order leading to a rash of firms with names like “++001 Alpha Express Testing” and “!!!0 – 100 Travel 19 Testing” – which remained some of the top search results this week.
The UKHSA pointed out that it has removed 175 providers from the list. But consumer groups and testing experts say much tougher action is needed because firms can set up again in a matter of hours.
“We take complaints raised very seriously and will not hesitate to remove providers listed on gov.uk where appropriate”, a UKHSA spokesperson said.
Much of the criticism so far has not fallen on laboratories such as Doctor-N-London but on the hundreds of middlemen that advertise tests and send them off to accredited labs for processing, often after charging significant mark-ups.
Simon Clarke, professor of cellular microbiology at Birmingham University, said that middlemen, or re-sellers, served no useful purpose other than to “cream off money” from people who need to be tested.
Unlike laboratories such as Doctor-N-London, these middlemen do not have to apply for Ukas accreditation.
Government guidance states that test re-sellers cannot appear on the approved list unless a laboratory has checked and certified that they meet minimum standards.
However, a government source said this was not being enforced and middlemen companies have effectively been allowed to self-certify their own credentials.
Reviews on consumer website Trustpilot indicate that large numbers of these firms have failed to provide basic levels of customer service, with hundreds of complaints about tests not arriving, firms disappearing and phone calls going unanswered.
A major problem is that regulation of the £490m market is falling between the cracks of multiple agencies. The UKHSA maintains the website but is not a regulator and does not take enforcement action against companies that fail to meet government standards.
A separate body, Ukas, deals with accreditation of laboratories and companies that take test samples before sending them off for processing. However, it does not actively police the organisations it has accredited.
The CMA can take action but has only done so in a handful of cases. In September it opened up a formal investigation into Expert Medicals, after allegations the company had failed to provide tests and results in a timely manner, or at all; had failed to respond to customer complaints; and had refused to issue refunds when due.
The CMA also wrote to a further 19 test providers warning them to improve their pricing information or risk action in the future. The companies were accused of offering misleading prices which were not available when customers clicked through to their websites.
After announcing the measures, the CMA said the government needed to bring forward legislation to stop further harm.
Customers who feel they have been ripped off have few realistic avenues of obtaining redress, according to Chloe Deng, a lawyer at Osborne Clarke.
If the company lists its real address then consumers could report it to local Trading Standards, but resources are stretched.
If a company has failed to provide the service advertised, a customer can seek legal advice and take action – but, Ms Deng warned, the costs may be “prohibitive”.