Test and Trace’s “staggering” £22bn annual cost has not been justified by any clear evidence of its impact on the Covid pandemic, parliament’s spending watchdog has declared.
The controversial service run by Tory peer Dido Harding has failed ministers’ central promise last year that it would prevent further lockdowns, the cross-party Commons public accounts committee said in a new report.
Spending on Test and Trace, which HuffPost UK has revealed is set to rise to £37bn in total over two years, showed that the Tory government was treating taxpayers “like an ATM machine” without proper checks on value for money, committee chair Meg Hillier said.
The withering report attacked the system’s “sub-standard performance”, its over-reliance on expensive private consultants, its lack of public health experts at senior levels and the way it “ignored” councils and NHS primary care bodies.
Crucially, the MPs pointed out that the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) had tried last year to justify the huge spending 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”.
“There is still no clear evidence to judge NHST&T’s overall effectiveness. It is unclear whether its specific contribution to reducing infection levels, as opposed to the other measures introduced to tackle the pandemic, has justified its costs,” the report said.
The service admitted in February that it still employs around 2,500 consultants, at an estimated daily rate of around £1,100, with the best paid consultancy staff on £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 said.
While the service publishes weekly performance data, its statistics “do not demonstrate how effective test and trace is at reducing transmission” because it fails to give an overview of the speed of the process from beginning to end, known as “cough to contact”.
And most of its claimed impact on cutting the ‘R’ number of the virus comes from people with symptoms self-isolating, which they would do anyway even without a test and trace system, the MPs said.
Government scientists on the Sage advisory body warned last September that Test and Trace was having a “marginal impact” on the virus, but Harding has insisted it is now making a material difference and has improved its performance on test turnaround times and contact rates.
Hillier said: “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.
“Not only is it essential it delivers an effective system as pupils return to school and more people return to their workplace, but for the billions spent we need to see a top class legacy system. British taxpayers cannot be treated by Government like an ATM machine.”
The report came after England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned of another “surge” in the virus later this year, either in the late summer or autumn, even with a successful vaccination programme.
Shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves said the report shows the system has “failed the British people and led our country into restrictive lockdown after lockdown”.
“It underlines the epic amounts of waste and incompetence, an overreliance 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,” she said.
Baroness Harding said in a statement: “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 1.5million 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.”