Taxpayers 'Treated Like Cash Dispensers' Over Test and Trace: Commons Watchdog 

Peter Russell

March 10, 2021

Taxpayers have been treated like a bank cash machine to pay for the "huge expense" of a test and trace system that has twice failed to prevent England going into lockdown during the pandemic, an influential Commons committee said.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) called for the Government to set out a clear plan for testing and tracing and to bring the "staggering costs" of the system under control.

Up to November 2020 NHS Test & Trace (NHST&T) had spent £5.7 billion out of an allocated budget of £37 billion spread over 2 years.

The Department of Health and Social Care justified the cost to help break chains of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and to enable people to return to a normal way of life, the report acknowledged.

Between the service's inception in May 2020 and January 2021, daily UK testing capacity for COVID-19 increased from around 100,000 to over 800,000 tests. During this time NHST&T contacted more than 2.5 million people testing positive for COVID-19 in England and advised more than 4.5 million of their contacts to self-isolate.

Spending Has Been 'Unimaginable'

However, since NHST&T's creation, and despite the "unimaginable" scale of investment, there have been two more lockdowns, the PAC said.

The report questioned whether the service's contribution to reducing infection levels – as opposed to other measures introduced to tackle the pandemic – represented value for money.

For instance, NHST&T had never met the target to turn around all tests in face-to-face settings within 24 hours.

The Government should outline its future strategy for testing and tracing in the light of the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the PAC recommended.

"British taxpayers cannot be treated by Government like an ATM machine," commented Meg Hillier, the committee's chair.

The PAC report found that a major focus for NHST&T in early 2021 was the mass roll-out of rapid testing in different community settings. However, it found particular setbacks for the roll-out to schools.

Expensive Consultancy

The DHSC and NHST&T were criticised for relying on sub-contractors to carry out its work.

There were 2300 consultants and contractors working for 73 different suppliers in NHST&T, at a cost of around £375 million up until the beginning of November 2020.

In evidence given to the committee in January this year, the DHSC estimated that the average cost for each consultant was about £1100 a day, up to a maximum of £6624 for some consultancy staff.

While NHST&T had to be set up and staffed at speed, it must now "wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants", Ms Hillier urged.

“The £23 billion test and trace has cost us so far is about the annual budget of the Department for Transport. Test and Trace still continues to pay for consultants at £1000 a day.
“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," she said.

'Real Impact'

BMA Council Chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said in a statement: "This report lays bare the huge failings of the Test and Trace system and the scandalous, eye-watering sums of money wasted on the unaccountable private sector as opposed to the public sector."

He added: "While not solely to blame, the ineffectiveness of Test and Trace has contributed to a higher number of cases, greater pressure on the NHS, and ultimately a higher death toll – now the highest in Europe."  

Commenting on the report, Baroness Dido Harding, interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, said: "NHS Test and Trace 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.

"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 1.5 million 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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