Covid: Seven damning criticisms of Dido Harding's NHS Test and Trace programme

  • Video report from Political Correspondent Libby Wiener

Despite being hailed as "world beating", the UK's Test and Trace system has been heavily criticised for almost the whole time its been in use.

Now the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), a cross-party group, has said there's “no clear evidence” the £22 billion scheme, run by Baroness Dido Harding, contributed at all to a reduction in coronavirus infections.

Here we take a look at why the blighted programme - which Matt Hancock once said would be "vital" in easing the first lockdown - has failed to live up to most people's expectations.

What's gone wrong for Test and Trace?

  • The app didn't work

When devising a plan to get the UK out of its first coronavirus lockdown, the health service's tech wing NHSX opted to develop its contact tracing app without the help of Apple and Google, both of which had offered to collaborate on the app.

The app would not work on a large proportion of phones, so after many weeks of trying, spending millions, the government eventually decided to join forces with the tech giants.

Before the collaboration the app was reaching just 4% of iPhone users.

Eventually the app was released to the public in September, several months after minsters hoped it would be - it has also cost the taxpayer £40 million.

  • Contact tracers weren't tracing enough contacts

According to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) 80% of contacts with coronavirus cases needed to be contacted and told to self-isolate in order to be effective.

While figures show the system is now surpassing that threshold, for many months it was failing to contact anywhere near enough people.

Several stat reports showed around just 60% of contacts had been reached and told to isolate, meaning thousands of potential coronavirus cases could have been passing on Covid-19.

  • Self-isolation compliance has been low

Even if NHS contact tracers reached 100% of coronavirus contacts, up to 80% of them would be required to self-isolate in order for the scheme to be effective.

In September research referenced by Sage said that just 15% to 30% of people were self-isolating, at which point the government introduced £500 in support for people on low incomes whose finances would be impacted if they had to stay at home.

But between 40% and 20% of people contacted by the programme are still not fully self-isolating, leader of the scheme Baroness Harding revealed in a February Science and Technology Committee.

  • The target to turnaround results for face to face tests has never been met

One point of criticism focused on by the PAC is that the target to return results for all face to face tests within 24 hours has never been been met.

The point of this target is to ensure someone with coronavirus is told about is as soon as possible, so they can isolate themselves and avoid passing it on.

At the start of February the government said the latest data showed just 82.7% of in-person tests were seeing results returned within 24 hours.

  • It's cost £22 billion so far and some consultants are paid more than £6,000 a day

Test and Trace has admitted it employs 2,500 consultants, at an estimated daily rate of around £1,100.

The highest paid consultants are earning £6,624 a day.

The government has spent at least £375m on private consultancy services for Test and Trace.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, in his Budget, outlined a further £15 billion for the service, taking the total bill to more than £37 billion over two years.

Baroness Harding has previously defended the use of high paid consultants as "appropriate", but many people do not believe it is value for money.

Royal College of Nursing general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said nurses, who have been proposed a 1% pay cut this year, "will be furious to hear of the millions of pounds being spent on private sector consultants".

  • Data from millions of venue check-ins was not used when tracing contacts

After relaxation of the first lockdown, anyone wanting to enter a venue was told to either check-in by leaving their info with staff or using their NHS app, so authorities could locate them if there was a Covid outbreak.

But a report seen by Sky News showed data from hundreds of millions of check-ins was "barely" used by Test and Trace.

It meant "thousands of people" were not warned they might be at risk of infection, "potentially leading to the spread of the virus," the report said.

  • It took almost a month to locate a missing positive case

On March 5, Health Secretary Hancock proudly announced that a carrier of a Brazilian variant of concern had been located after going missing due to an incomplete passenger locator form.

It took five days after the case was identified as a variant of concern for Test and Trace to locate the missing person.

In a desperate bid to locate the person, Matt Hancock held a press conference in which he urged anyone who could be the person to "get in touch".

The search was narrowed down to 379 houses in the south east, before the person was eventually located in Croydon.

Matt Hancock praised the "dogged determination" of health authorities who found the missing case.

But the person who did not complete a test registration form was tested for coronavirus on February 12 or 13, meaning it took almost a month for the positive case to be located.

The health secretary said a case going under the radar due to an incomplete test registration is "extremely rare".

  • What has Dido Harding said?

Baroness Harding said she felt the report was "old news" and based on data spanning just half the system's life.

She added: “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.”