openDemocracyUK: News

Testing firms ‘lost’ thousands who entered England with COVID

Exclusive: Labour accused UK government of failing to regulate the ‘Wild West’ travel testing market that is failing despite ‘cripplingly high prices’

Caolán Magee
2 February 2022, 11.05am
Testing firms charging up to £95 lost many positive arrivals into England in the run-up to the Omicron wave
amer ghazzal/Alamy Live News

COVID testing firms ‘lost’ nearly 3,000 people who tested positive upon arrival in England in the weeks leading up to the Omicron wave.

Government figures show the businesses, which charged passengers up to £95 per test, were unable to trace 8% (2,852) of all the positive cases they detected (36,509) between 30 September and 15 December.

The government said all firms providing the tests had passed minimum standards requirements.

But Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh told openDemocracy this week: “The government has totally failed to get a grip of the ‘Wild West’ testing market despite repeated warnings from regulators.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

“Cripplingly high prices, coupled with failure to meet even the most basic standards, has left passengers and the public exposed. The health secretary has been clear that testing will be a part of our response for some time to come so the government must finally take action to clean up this rotten market and cap prices immediately.”

The UK’s first case of the Omicron variant was first reported on 27 November 2021. COVID cases began to rise sharply a few weeks later, peaking at 246,269 cases reported in 24 hours on 29 December.

In the period covered by the testing statistics, 8,126 people in the UK died after testing positive.

Related story

Boris Johnson
High Court rules ministers acted unlawfully by giving multi-million-pound PPE supply deals to a pest control company and a private equity firm

In the week in late November that the first case of the Omicron variant was found in the UK, there were 358 untraced positive COVID-19 cases ‘arriving in England’. It has since been revealed that, during this time, at least 70 people with Omicron arrived from South Africa, where the variant was first detected, in England. It is not known whether all 70 cases were able to be traced.

This makes it entirely possible that one or more of the untraced positive cases had the variant.

Latest UK government guidance states that people who have COVID-19 can infect others from about two days before symptoms start and for up to 10 days after. A recent study from the University of Bern stresses the importance of tracking travellers who test positive, as a “ten-day quarantine will prevent 99.9% of local transmission if the individual was infected during a seven-day trip”.

The UK Health Security Agency said: “It is the responsibility of private travel test providers to inform the individual of their test result. Providers are required to report the results of tests taken to UKHSA. In some cases, it is not possible for NHS Test and Trace to contact individuals where there is incorrect or incomplete information.”

In the week that Omicron was found in the UK, 358 untraced COVID cases ‘arrived in England’

Some four million travellers used the Test and Trace system between late February and late November 2021. Of those, a total of 307,540 tests could not be traced back to the people who had taken them.

The COVID-19 Test and Trace system had a total budget of £37bn for the first two years of the scheme, up to April 2022.

More than 152,000 people in the UK are confirmed to have died within 28 days of a positive COVID test since the virus was first detected. The true figure is likely to be significantly higher due to the lack of testing in the early stages of the pandemic.

The revelation comes amid fierce criticism of the government for wasting the equivalent of £8.7bn on personal protective equipment (PPE) that was unsuitable or expired before it could be used.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData