England’s troubled coronavirus test and trace service has spent “eye-watering” sums, including on private consultants, and unused lab capacity and contact tracers, according to a Commons inquiry.
A total of £37bn was earmarked for the effort to trace and isolate people infected with Covid-19 over two years — a sum amounting to almost a fifth of the entire annual NHS England budget, although the programme underspent by £8.7bn in its first year. Yet its outcomes had been “muddled” and “a number of its professed aims have been overstated or not achieved”, the public accounts committee complained.
Meg Hillier, committee chair, said the programme had “set out bold ambitions but has failed to achieve them despite the vast sums thrown at it”.
The committee took aim at test and trace’s “continued over-reliance” on consultants, which it said was likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds, adding that the programme lacked “a firm grip” on its spending. Despite a commitment to reduce the number of these temporary staff, the figure had risen from 2,164 in December to 2,239 in April this year.
The MPs acknowledged that the skills for which the consultants had been hired were in short supply across the civil service, but pointed out that the department paid them an average of £1,100 per day, with some earning far more. The programme estimated that it would spend a total of £195m on consultancies in 2021-22, but at the same time it had indicated that it would be spending £300m on its top ten consultancy suppliers alone, the committee said.
The MPs also criticised the way the programme had used its lab and contact centre capacity, saying that its approach was “still not flexible enough to meet changing demand and risks wasting public money”.
In 2020-21, test and trace paid £3.1bn to secure the laboratory capacity to process PCR tests and £911m for contact tracing, mostly on contact centres. However, it “used only a minority of the laboratory and contact-centre capacity it paid for”, the MPs said.
Between November 2020 and April 2021, “the average utilisation of its laboratories had been 45 per cent”, the committee reported, “well below the threshold of laboratory capacity that is available”.
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It had a target of contact-centre staff working for 50 per cent of the time they were paid, but they failed to achieve this. At their peak, at the beginning of January 2021, they worked for 49 per cent of their paid time, while by the end of February this had fallen to just 11 per cent.
The MPs also pointed out that although test and trace had committed to delivering a lasting legacy from its £150m investment in the laboratory network, promising improvements in diagnostic capacity for emergencies and cancer, it had only recently begun detailed discussions with NHS England.
The committee also found that results from only about 14 per cent of the lateral flow device (LFD) tests distributed by test and trace had been registered, and it was “not clear what benefit the remaining 595m tests have secured”.
Earlier, Lucy Chappell, chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health, suggested that testing of asymptomatic people should continue at least until January.
Giving evidence to the science and technology committee, she said: “In the short term I think we should be continuing with testing, particularly symptomatic individuals. I know that other groups are evaluating at what point we reconsider testing asymptomatic individuals beyond January, beyond spring.”
Chappell added: “I would like to think in five years’ time we won’t all be lateral flow testing. There is a stretchable point between now and five years clearly.”