Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Shehab Khan
There is “no clear evidence” the £22 billion Test and Trace scheme contributed to a reduction in coronavirus infection levels, a cross-party group of MPs have said.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said Test and Trace was set up and the vast expenditure justified by ministers saying the scheme would prevent future lockdowns, but noted England is currently living under its third and questioned the programme’s effectiveness.
They also urged the scheme led by Tory peer Dido Harding to “wean itself off” reliance on thousands of “expensive” consultants and temporary staff, with some receiving £6,624 per day.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson backed the programme, telling MPs: “It’s thanks to NHS Test and Trace that we’re able to send kids back to school and begin cautiously and irreversibly to reopen our economy and restart our lives.”The PAC said the programme does publish a significant amount of weekly data, including some that shows full compliance with the self-isolation rules relied upon by the scheme can be low.
But it criticised the data for failing to show the speed of the process from “cough to contact” and therefore not allowing the public to judge the “overall effectiveness of the programme”.
Interim Executive Chair of the National Institute for Health Protection Baroness Dido 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.”
The MPs also criticised the scheme for struggling to consistently match supply and demand for the service, and therefore “resulting in either sub-standard performance or surplus capacity”.
And they said it remained “overly reliant” on contractors and temporary staff after having to initially act quickly to scale up the service rapidly.
The PAC was set up to examine the value for money of government projects, programmes and service delivery.
In a critical report, Meg Hillier, PAC chair, urged the government to justify the “staggering investment of taxpayers’ money”.
ITV News Science Editor on what this means for the Test and Trace system
The report said the scheme admitted in February that it still employs around 2,500 consultants, at an estimated daily rate of around £1,100, with the best paid consultancy staff on £6,624.
“It is concerning that the DHSC [Department of Health and Social Care] is still paying such amounts – which it considers to be ‘very competitive rates’ to so many consultants,” the report said.
Ministers have rubbished the report, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying the Test and Trace team had done an "amazing job" to have built the system in such a short amount of time, with a million and a half tests carried out on Tuesday.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock defends Test and Trace
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told ITV News he is "very, very surprised" by the "Labour chaired" report, adding: "I just don't think it's credible to suggest [Test and Trace] hasn't had an enormous impact."
He cited a number of examples which he said shows the system has had an "enormous" impact, such as the "9.1 million people" who have been told to self-isolate.
"Without that they would have been wondering around spreading the disease."
He also said freight is only able to enter the UK from abroad "because we're able to test every single haulier".
After England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned of another “surge” in the virus later in the year, the PAC called for ministers to set out how the scheme will “cost-effectively maintain a degree of readiness”.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget last week included an additional £15 billion for Test and Trace, taking the total bill to more than £37 billion over two years.
Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said the report shows the significantly outsourced system has “failed the British people and led our country into restrictive lockdown after lockdown”.
“It underlines the epic amounts of waste and incompetence, an over-reliance on management consultants, taxpayers’ cash splashed on crony contracts, all while ministers insist our NHS heroes deserve nothing more than a clap and a pay cut,” she said.
Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady said the government’s refusal to increase statutory sick pay had “massively undermined Test and Trace”.
Royal College of Nursing general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said nurses “will be furious to hear of the millions of pounds being spent on private sector consultants”.
The government said a further 231 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus as of Tuesday, while there were a further 5,766 lab-confirmed cases in the UK.
Data as of the end of Monday, March 8, shows that 22,592,528 people have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while 1,181,431 individuals have had two.