New Zealanders heading overseas are being charged more for their pre-departure Covid-19 tests than people in other countries, says a personal finance expert.
The Government covers the costs of community Covid testing, making them free to the public. But travellers have to show a negative test for Covid-19 shortly before leaving the country, which they have to pay for.
The most common test is a nasopharyngeal swab and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test. Saliva and PCR tests are also used.
In the United Kingdom, the competition watchdog launched an investigation into the price of pre-departure tests. There, tests cost an average £75 (NZ$146) per person, but ranged from as little as £20 to more than £500, according to the BBC.
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In New Zealand, the tests cost about $250, without ‘extra’ charges such as late booking and weekend fees, said MoneyHub founder Christopher Walsh.
“If you’re planning on flying to Australia when things return to normal, that test you will probably need, will likely cost more than the ticket. Travel Covid testing is emerging as a way for specialist clinics to strike it rich,” he said.
“Pre-departure testing will likely be with us for a little bit, even after we reach maximum immunity. However, I was shocked to see one North Shore clinic charging $285-plus per test. For a family of four visiting Australia, that’s over $1100 in testing fees.”
A booking on a Friday or the weekend cost an extra $25 per test, and a late booking fee added an extra $50.
“That family of four could quickly rack up charges of $1500-plus just to leave New Zealand,” Walsh said.
“As it stands, based on some price sampling and overseas research, New Zealand clinics are charging the most for pre-departure Covid tests.”
Some New Zealand clinics were at least $100 cheaper than the most expensive, but the customer had to arrange and pay for their own test on top of that.
Overseas travel was not currently on the cards for most New Zealanders, but that was likely to change after borders reopened, he said.
“I respect there is a need for tests – it’s the pricing that’s mad, and it’s simply not fair. For every full Air New Zealand 787 leaving Auckland Airport, that’s about $75,000 in pre-departure testing fees being hoovered up.”
Walsh wanted to see the Government regulate a ceiling price on the pre-departure tests before borders reopened.
“Just as they did with clamping, credit contracts and other initiatives, Covid testing costs are an issue. We cannot be at the mercy of private operators’ profit objectives.”
John Mackay, technical director at testing lab dnature which did not do pre-departure Covid tests, said the amount of competition in big markets could push down prices overseas.
Private clinics did not do the testing themselves, outsourcing it to a commercial laboratory. However, every PCR lab used a similar process, he said.
Costs included paying the people taking the swabs, couriering samples, international accreditation for the laboratories, and the equipment to extract Covid RNA from samples.
The results also had to be interpreted, and presented on time to an international standard to allow travel.
The labs had taken a business risk, which they balanced against the commercial opportunity.
“In some places, these laboratories have had to make significant investment in machines to do this as well, and if it’s a private company more often than not they’ve taken the punt that the business will be there by the time they get the machines and get them validated,” Mackay said.
Different companies manufactured the Covid PCR test, which could affect the end cost, but the process was standard.
UK consumer organisation, Which, found PCR tests priced at £60 each, offered at London Gatwick Airport’s drive-through and walk-in test centres. The most expensive test that Which found in London was £399, with a 48-hour turnaround.
A guide by UK insurer Admiral in August reported that the average cost for a PCR test in the United States was £118, in the UK it was £92 and in France it was £42.
Across the Tasman, Healius clinics throughout Australia charged A$150 (NZ$155) for a PCR pre-departure test, with a turnaround time of about 24 hours.