An inquiry into the government’s beleaguered NHS Test and Trace system has found “no clear evidence” of its overall effectiveness. Despite the “unimaginable” resources allocated to the system – £37bn budgeted over two years – Test and Trace failed in its aim of preventing a second lockdown (the UK is currently in its third) and it remains “unclear” whether it has helped reduce infection levels, according to the Public Accounts Committee of MPs.
The findings come as no surprise. As recently as September, minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) revealed that “this system is having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment”.
By October, just over five months after the launch of what was supposed to be a “world-beating” system, just 15 per cent of people tested were receiving results within 24 hours, and only 60 per cent of close contacts were reached (80 per cent have to be reached for the system to be effective, according to Sage). Earlier in the year, Boris Johnson had promised “all tests [would be] turned around within 24 hours by the end of June”.
At the time, the former government chief whip Mark Harper – the chair of the Covid Recovery Group of backbench Tory MPs – said Test and Trace “simply isn’t good enough” and called for resources to be channelled into local public health teams. The latter have a better understanding of their communities, and local authority contact tracing systems have a 97 per cent success rate at finding close contacts and advising them to self-isolate, according to the Local Government Association.
Test and Trace has long exposed a problem with centralisation and private outsourcing – the contact tracing side of Test and Trace was sub-contracted to Serco. It has also been a story of cronyism, as Conservative peer Dido Harding, the wife of a Tory MP, was appointed as head of Test and Trace, despite having no experience in public health.
Consultancy costs have also contributed to the controversy surrounding the system. Last November, 2,300 consultants and contractors were working on Test and Trace, with consultancy costs approximating £375m up to that point. The average cost per consultant was about £1,100 a day, with some earning £6,624 per day. The Public Accounts Committee says the system should “wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants”.
The influential Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the Commons Liaison Committee, accused Test and Trace last October of a “vacuum of leadership” at the top, complaining of a “spaghetti of command and control”. He even called on Harding to be “given a well-earned break” and for a military commander to be put in charge instead.
Last autumn, Boris Johnson admitted he shared “people’s frustrations” with the system at a press conference and conceded there needed to be “faster turnaround times”, while the chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said there was room for improvement and the problems were “diminishing its effectiveness”. Finally, the Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier said taxpayers “cannot be treated by government like an ATM machine”.
This ongoing and costly farce makes it hard to swallow the hypocrisy of ministers suggesting money is too “tight” for other services, which have proved their worth during the pandemic. These include nurses, whose pay is being cut in real terms, and funding for councils, which are going bankrupt.