The biggest problems with the £37bn NHS Test and Trace system

MPs say programme has been expensive flop that ‘failed’ to stop the spread

Baroness Harding and Matt Hancock at Downing STreet
Dido Harding and Matt Hancock at Downing Street
(Image credit: Getty Images)

NHS Test and Trace has proven to be an “eye-watering” waste of taxpayers’ money, the government spending watchdog has concluded.

A newly published Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report – described as “excoriating” by The Telegraph – said that despite £37bn of funding, the scheme “failed to deliver on its central promise of averting another lockdown”.

The scheme that Boris Johnson hailed as “world-beating” did not achieves its goal to “help break chains of Covid-19 transmission and enable people to return towards a more normal way of life”, the MPs wrote.

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‘Paid to watch Netflix’

The committee found that a hefty chunk of the funding pumped into Test and Trace – equal to almost a fifth of the entire 2020-21 NHS England budget – was used to hire more than 2,000 management consultants on an average rate of more than £1,000 a day. Some have been paid more than £6,600 a day.

Spending on such hirings had got “out of hand”, the report suggested. Despite pledges to reduce dependency on management consultants, the project employed more in April 2021 than in December 2020.

Contact centre staff have also been underutilised, said the MPs, with the proportion of tracers who were working ranging from just 11% to a maximum of 49%.

Call handlers at NHS Test and Trace told the BBC last year that they were effectively being paid to “watch Netflix” at home.

Mystery tests

What The Guardian described as the “damning” report also noted that last Christmas, “when there appeared to be spare laboratory capacity and Covid-19 cases were rising”, only 17% of people received coronavirus test results within 24 hours.

Government scientists advised that, for a test and trace system to be effective, no more than 48 hours should pass between identifying a positive case and their contacts going into self-isolation. Yet the less ambition NHS Test and Trace target of reaching 80% of contacts within 72 hours was not met until January.

And between November 2020 and April 2021, the average utilisation of labs testing for Covid was just 45%, the report said.

Almost 700m at-home lateral flow tests had also been distributed by NHS Test and Trace as of the end of May, but only 14% of the results were registered online, despite such data being crucial in tracking the spread.

“It is not clear what benefit the remaining 595m tests have secured,” the committee said.

The report also described uptake of test and trace services as “variable”, noted ITV. According to the report, “only a minority of people experiencing Covid-19 symptoms get a test”.

Saving lives?

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the report has “highlighted a great many shortcomings in the NHS Test & Trace service”, according to the Science Media Centre organisation.

He noted that Tory peer Dido Harding, who led the scheme until May this year, had “previously boasted that the operation was the size of Tesco”, without “conceding that the supermarket chain actually works”.

But Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, argued that NHS Test and Trace is “saving lives every day”.

Major improvements had been made “in testing capacity, turnaround times and speed and reach of contact tracing – and improved collaboration with local authorities”, she said, adding: “NHS Test and Trace has played an essential role in combating this pandemic.”

A government spokesperson said that “to date, over 323m tests have been delivered and almost 20m people contacted who could otherwise have unknowingly transmitted the virus”.

“We have rightly drawn on the extensive expertise of a number of public and private sector partners who have been invaluable in helping us tackle the virus,” the spokesperson continued.

"We have built a testing network from scratch that can process millions of tests a day – more than any European country – providing a free LFD or PCR test to anybody who needs one.”

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