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No Evidence “Unimaginable” £37bn Cost Of NHS Test & Trace Has Had Effect On Tackling Pandemic, Say MPs

Baroness Dido Harding is the boss of NHS Test & Trace which has been criticised by a powerful Commons committee (Alamy)

5 min read

An influential Parliamentary committee has said there is no evidence the “unimaginable” cost of NHS Test & Trace has made any progress in dealing with the pandemic.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said despite being allocated £37 billion in funding it failed to deliver on the central promise of preventing further lockdowns that the government used to justify it.

The cross-party group of MPs said the service must “wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants,” while it “still struggles to consistently match supply and demand for its test and trace services, resulting in either sub-standard performance or surplus capacity.”

Its chair, the Labour MP Meg Hillier, said a plan to rein in Test & Trace (T&T) spending must be made: “British taxpayers cannot be treated by government like an ATM machine.”

After initially being allocated £22 billion the Chancellor made a further £15 billion available in last week’s Budget for the service’s work in dealing with coronavirus.

Full details of how much money has actually been spent are not yet available, with the government only revealing that £4billion was spent up to the end of October last year.

The committee said the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) justified the scale of investment “in part on the basis that an effective test and trace system would help avoid a second national lockdown – but since its creation we have had two more lockdowns.”

They said while “the scale of T&T’s activities is striking,” having increased testing capacity to 800,000 a day and contacting more than 2.5 million people who tested positive for Covid-19, “the percentage of total laboratory testing capacity used in November and December 2020 remained under 65%.”

But even with the spare capacity T&T “has never met the target to turn around all tests in face-to-face settings in 24 hours,” the report adds.

“In September 2020, T&T significantly underestimated the increase in demand for testing when schools and universities returned, resulting in poor performance,” the MPs said.

“When the demand for tests surged again over Christmas, T&T feels it managed access to tests better, but there were still dips in turnaround times despite apparent spare laboratory capacity.”

They also said the NHS publishes a lot of performance data “but these do not demonstrate how effective test and trace is at reducing transmission of Covid-19.”

“Professional bodies, such as SAGE and BMA, have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the programme in reducing transmission,” the report says.

“NHST&T publishes weekly performance data, but these do not provide an overview of the speed of the process from beginning to end - 'cough to contact' - and thus do not allow readers to understand the overall effectiveness of the programme.”

At the beginning of November 2020, there was criticism after a ministerial announcement said there were 2,300 consultants and contractors working on the service, but in early February it was still employing around 2,500 consultants, at an estimated average daily rate of around £1,100, with the highest daily rate paid of £6,624. 

“It is concerning that the DHSC is still paying such amounts – which it considers to be ‘very competitive rates’ – to so many consultants”, the report added.

And it also criticised the introduction of supposed “game changer” rapid testing schemes saying “confusion persists over why and how it should be used in different community settings.”

The MPs said T&T “claims to be a learning organisation, but since last May many important stakeholders have at times felt ignored by it”.  

The report concluded: “The Department and NHST&T talk about leaving a legacy for the NHS through the vast investment in testing capacity, but they have not articulated even at a high level what this will be.”

Hillier added: “The £23 billion test and trace has cost us so far is about the annual budget of the Department for Transport. 

“Yet despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project Test and Trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic, and the promise on which this huge expense was justified - avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice.”

In response Rachel Reeves, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: “This report reveals how this government’s outsourced, Serco-led Test and Trace system failed the British people and led our country into restrictive lockdown after lockdown.  

“It underlines the epic amounts of waste and incompetence, an over-reliance on management consultants, taxpayers' cash splashed on crony contracts, all while ministers insist our NHS heroes deserve nothing more than a clap and a pay cut.

“The Conservatives' wasteful obsession with outsourcing must end and contact tracing should be run by our public health teams.”

Baroness Dido Harding, the interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, which oversees NHS Test & Trace, said the service “is essential in our fight against Covid-19 and regular testing is a vital tool to stop transmission as we cautiously ease restrictions”. 

“Protecting communities and saving lives is always our first priority and every pound spent is contributing towards our efforts to keep people safe - with 80% of NHS Test and Trace’s budget spent on buying and carrying out coronavirus tests,” she added.

“After building a testing system from scratch, we have now carried out over 83 million coronavirus tests - more than any other comparable European country - and yesterday alone we conducted over 1.5million tests. 

“We are now rolling out regular rapid asymptomatic testing which is supporting children to go back to school, people to go to work and visitors to see their loved ones in care homes. 

“NHS Test and Trace has successfully reached 93.6% of the contacts of positive cases - with 98% being contacted within 24 hours, and the contact tracing service has already reached more than 9.1 million cases and contacts, making a real impact in breaking chains of transmission.”

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