Boris Johnson’s £37bn Test and Trace service is facing a fresh row after it emerged that the government is refusing to publish details of meetings held by its chief Dido Harding.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has confirmed that it holds the information but is refusing a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request – because to do so “would exceed the appropriate cost limit” of £600.
Campaign group The Good Law Project, which submitted the request, asked what ministers hoped to hide by failing to make the details public.
Test and Trace faced withering criticism on Wednesday in a new report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which concluded there was “no clear evidence” that it had made a significant impact on the Covid-19 pandemic.
MPs also attacked the “staggering” cost of the system and concluded ministers were treating taxpayers “like an ATM machine”.
Tory peer Harding, who was installed by health secretary Matt Hancock as head of Test and Trace last year, has stoutly defended the service as it delivers millions of rapid tests needed to reopen schools.
DHSC publishes on a quarterly basis a schedule of all meetings held by senior officials, ministers and advisors, detailing dates and attendees. But although the list includes senior figures such as chief medical officer Chris Whitty, it has no details for Harding.
The Good Law Project submitted an FOI request last month, asking for a list of Harding’s meetings from the start of her role as the head of Test and Trace in May 2020 through to December 31.
In reply, the department said: “DHSC holds information relevant to your request. However, to provide the information as it is currently framed would exceed the appropriate cost limit set out in the FOIA.
“Section 12(1) of the FOIA means public authorities are not obliged to comply with a request for information if it estimates the cost of complying would exceed the appropriate limit. The appropriate limit for DHSC is set at £600, which represents the cost of one person spending 3.5 days determining whether we hold the information, and then locating, retrieving and extracting the information.
“We have estimated the cost of extracting the information would exceed the appropriate limit. Consequently, we will not be answering your request.”
Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project told HuffPost UK: “It’s almost like putting your pals in charge does not serve the public interest.
“Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on a failing test and trace system – now government refuses to release details of Dido Harding’s meetings like they would with any other senior official. You can’t help but wonder – what is it that this government doesn’t want us to know?”
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “Given the monumental sums of money spent on Test and Trace that a cross party group of MPs say haven’t been well spent, it is a deep irony that the government are refusing to be transparent about meetings held by the head of that system – on cost grounds.
“It seems the government are afraid of scrutiny, but given its poor performance to date they need to be far more open about decisions taken – there needs to be far greater accountability and transparency.”
DHSC said the Good Law Project is entitled to an internal review within the statutory 20 days or to revise their request to reduce the volume of information requested. The campaign group has requested a review.