There is no evidence to show that the government’s £22bn test-and-trace programme to combat Covid-19 in England contributed to a reduction in coronavirus infection levels, parliament’s spending watchdog has concluded.
In a report which examined the rush to invest in the scheme, the cross-party public accounts committee has challenged ministers to justify the “staggering investment of taxpayers’ money” and criticised the use of private consultants who are paid up to £6,624 a day.
The programme, which has a budget that exceeds that of the Department for Transport, is run by Dido Harding, who was appointed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, last year. At the time, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, said the country would have as “world-beating” system.
The timing of the report’s conclusions is an embarrassment for the government as it continues to refuse to give a pay increase of more than 1% to health workers.
Ministers had justified the vast expenditure on preventing a second national lockdown, but – questioning the programme’s effectiveness – MPs who compiled the report noted that England is now living under its third.
Meg Hillier, the chair of the committee, said the enormous amounts spent on the scheme leaves the impression that the public purse has been used like a cashpoint.
“Despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project, test and trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic, and the promise on which this huge expense was justified – avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice,” she said. “British taxpayers cannot be treated by the government like an ATM machine. We need to see a clear plan and costs better controlled.”
The committee said the NHS programme does publish a significant amount of weekly data, including some that shows 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”.
“There is still no clear evidence to judge NHS test and trace’s overall effectiveness. It is unclear whether its specific contribution to reducing infection levels, as opposed to the other measures introduced to tackle the pandemic, has justified its costs,” the report said.
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”. The programme remained “overly reliant” on contractors and temporary staff after having to initially act quickly to scale up the service rapidly.
“A range of stakeholders have queried why local authorities and NHS primary care bodies were not more directly involved in testing and tracing activities at the outset, given their existing networks, experience and expertise,” the report said
MPs said the scheme admitted in February that it still employs about 2,500 consultants, at an estimated daily rate of about £1,100, with the best-paid consultancy staff on £6,624. But the programme was still not engaging with teachers, the report said. “We are also concerned by a lack of engagement with school heads and education stakeholders in the roll-out of rapid testing, and the lack of general public health expertise at senior levels of NHS test and trace,” MPs said.
Commenting on the report, Harding said: “NHS test and trace is essential in our fight against Covid-19. After building a testing system from scratch, we have now carried out over 83m coronavirus tests – more than any other comparable European country – and yesterday alone we conducted over 1.5m tests.”
As England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, warned of another “surge” in the virus later in the year, the committee 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 £15bn for test and trace, taking the total bill to more than £37bn over two years.
Trades Union Congress general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the government’s refusal to increase statutory sick pay had “massively undermined test and trace”.
Experts advising the government in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said in September that the testing programme was only having a “marginal” impact on transmission.
Whitehall’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, said in a report in December that not enough test results were delivered within 24 hours and too few contacts of infected people were being reached and told to self-isolate. Some call handlers were also said to have been busy for only 1% of their paid hours in the service’s early days, rising to less than 50% in October.
An internal “business case” produced by the Department of Health and Social Care in September justified spending billions on the controversial service because it would be a “main driver” in preventing a new economic shutdown.
Reacting to the report, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, Donna Kinnair, said nursing staff will be “furious” to hear of the millions of pounds being spent on private-sector consultants. “The public knows more nurses, not more highlypaid consultants, means better care,” she said.