The £37billion NHS Test and Trace service has been an ‘eye-wateringly expensive’ failure, a damning report by MPs claims.
It has failed to break chains of Covid transmission, prevent lockdowns or enable people to return to a more normal way of life.
The organisation, previously led by former TalkTalk boss Baroness Harding, also had ‘muddled’ objectives, the Public Accounts Committee said.
Spending on Test and Trace is equal to nearly a fifth of the 2020/21 NHS England budget.
Just 45 per cent of testing capacity was used between November 2020 and April 2021, and at times as few as 11 per cent of contact centre staff were being utilised.
Only 96million of 691million lateral flow tests it distributed were registered. And it ‘is not clear what benefit the remaining 595million tests have secured’.
The programme was championed by the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whilst Prime Minister Boris Johnson described it as ‘world-beating’.
The £37billion NHS Test and Trace service has been an ‘eye-wateringly expensive’ failure, a damning report by MPs claims
It has failed to break chains of Covid transmission, prevent lockdowns or enable people to return to a more normal way of life. The organisation, previously led by former TalkTalk boss Baroness Harding (pictured), also had ‘muddled’ objectives, the Public Accounts Committee said
Despite committing to reduce consultants – paid an average of £1,100 a day – the service employed more in April 2021 (2,239) than in December 2020 (2,164).
Committee chairman Dame Meg Hillier said: ‘It set out bold ambitions but has failed to achieve them despite the vast sums thrown at it.’
The damning report’s main conclusions
– NHS Test and Trace ‘has not achieved its main objective to help break chains of Covid-19 transmission and enable people to return towards a more normal way of life’.
– The programme’s ‘continued over-reliance on consultants is likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds’.
– Uptake of services provided by Test and Trace is ‘variable’ and ‘only a minority of people experiencing Covid-19 symptoms get a test’, with some groups less likely to take tests compared with others.
– The programme’s laboratories approach and contact centre usage is ‘still not flexible enough to meet changing demand and risks wasting public money’.
Meanwhile, the professor who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab has said it is unfair to ‘bash the UK’ over high numbers of Covid cases – around 40,000 a day in recent weeks.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard said: ‘If you look across western Europe, we have about ten times more tests done each day than some other countries.’
The damning report has been published just ahead of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget, where he will lay out the details of the recently-announced £6billion funding boost for the NHS.
It details how the Test and Trace system failed to hit set targets and that spending on consultants was out of control.
Mr Hancock had promised that the system would allow the Government to avoid the use of national lockdowns and instead get the contacts of people who had contracted Covid-19 to isolate.
The report also details how less than half of contact tracers who had been hired were ever in use at any one time.
It said: ‘[NHS Test and Trace] has a 50 per cent target utilisation rate for its contact centre staff, but the highest reached was 49 per cent at the beginning of January 2021 and this had fallen to 11 per cent by the end of February 2021.
‘Over Christmas 2020, when there appeared to be spare laboratory capacity and Covid-19 cases were rising, performance declined and it took longer to provide test results, with only 17 per cent of people receiving test results within 24 hours in December 2020.’
The programme was championed by the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whilst Prime Minister Boris Johnson described it as ‘world-beating’
Of the near-700million lateral flow tests which were distributed by NHS Test and Trace, only 14 per cent were registered online – something which is essential for the spread of coronavirus to be tracked.
The committee also criticised handling of the cash, highlighting that the programme has still not managed to reduce the number of expensive contractors – who are paid an average of £1,100 per day – and has not developed a ‘flexible’ approach to using laboratories, which ‘risks wasting public money’.
Test and Trace’s ‘continued over-reliance on consultants is likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds’, the report states.
It has been focused on getting programmes up and running and ‘paid less attention to ensuring these programmes delivered the benefits they promised’, it adds.
Dame Meg Hillier said NHS Test and Trace failed to live up to its ‘bold’ ambitions
And uptake of services provided by the programme is ‘variable’ as some vulnerable people are much less likely to take a test than others.
MPs on the cross-party committee said that as the programme is moved into the new UK Health Security Agency it needs a ‘proper long-term strategy’.
Dame Hillier added: ‘The continued reliance on the over-priced consultants who ‘delivered’ this state of affairs will by itself cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds.
‘For this huge amount of money we need to see a legacy system ready to deliver when needed but it’s just not clear what there will be to show in the long term. This legacy has to be a focus for government if we are to see any value for the money spent.’
MPs have set out a series of recommendations and suggested improvements to the programme.
The Test and Trace programme was rapidly developed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, spearheaded by Baroness Harding, with the objective of testing the nation and tracing contacts of positive cases.
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said in a statement: ‘NHS Test and Trace (NHSTT) has played an essential role in combating this pandemic.
‘As the Public Accounts Committee acknowledges, there have been improvements in testing capacity, turnaround times and speed and reach of contact tracing – and improved collaboration with local authorities.
‘The fact is NHSTT is saving lives every single day and helping us fight Covid-19 by breaking chains of transmission and spotting outbreaks wherever they exist.
‘More than 323 million tests have now been carried out across the UK. NHSTT has now contacted more than 19.9 million people, helping to slow the spread of the virus.
A government spokesman said: ‘NHS Test & Trace has delivered on what it set out to do – break chains of transmission and save lives.
‘To date, over 323 million tests have been delivered and almost 20 million 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.
‘We’ve 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.
‘The new UK Health Security Agency will consolidate the knowledge that now exists across our health system to help us tackle future pandemics and threats.’