UK's Test and Trace ‘failed on main objective’ despite huge funding

Testing service was given equivalent of 20% of NHS’s entire annual budget, Parliament told

FILE PHOTO: An NHS track and trace staff member holds up COVID-19 testing kits at a test centre amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bolton, Britain, September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble/File Photo

The British National Health Service's Test and Trace programme “has not achieved its main objective” to enable people to return to a more normal way of life, despite being given “eye-watering” sums of money, a report by MPs claims.

Parliament's public accounts committee said the programme’s outcomes had been muddled and a number of its aims had been “overstated or not achieved”.

It has been given the equivalent of 20 per cent of the NHS’s entire annual budget – £37 billion ($50.93bn) over two years.

The committee also criticised the handling of the cash, saying the programme has still not reduced the number of expensive contractors, who are paid an average of £1,100 a day.

It said the programme had not developed a flexible approach to using laboratories, which could lead to public money being wasted.

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 says.

And acceptance of services provided by the programme is “variable”, as some vulnerable people are much less likely to have 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 must have a “proper long-term strategy”.

“The national Test and Trace programme was allocated eye-watering sums of taxpayers’ money in the midst of a global health and economic crisis," said Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the public accounts committee.

“It set out bold ambitions but has failed to achieve them despite the vast sums thrown at it.

“Only 14% of 691 million lateral flow tests sent out had results reported, and who knows how many took the necessary action based on the results they got, or how many were never used.

“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.”

The conclusions in the report include that 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”.

It says acceptance of services provided by Test and Trace is “variable” and “only a minority of people experiencing Covid-19 symptoms get a test”.

MPs have presented recommendations and suggested improvements to the programme.

It was quickly developed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, led by Baroness Harding, to test the nation and trace contacts of positive cases.

“NHS Test and Trace has played an essential role in combating this pandemic," said Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency.

“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 is 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.

“Testing, contact tracing and the wall of defence built by our vaccination programme are all fundamental to our ongoing efforts to keep people safe as we return to a more normal way of life.

A government representative said: “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 have 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."

Updated: October 26th 2021, 11:01 PM