How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn

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How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
© Mark Kerrison A Covid-19 public health information sign is pictured in front of local residents enjoying refreshments outside a JD Wetherspoon public house on 27th July 2021 in Maidenhead, United Kingdom. JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin has complained of labour shortages at the chain’s pubs due to 5,000 of his 40,000 staff having to self-isolate after having been contacted by NHS Test and Trace. (photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

NHS Test and Trace was given one fundamental task – to “help break chains of Covid-19 transmission and enable people to return towards a more normal way of life”.

On this, the £37billion operation failed, says a highly critical report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The system – presided over by Baroness Harding, who leaves her NHS post this month – made one broken pledge after another, MPs said on Wednesday.

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
© Provided by The Telegraph It was described as an ‘eye-watering’ waste of cash

Perhaps most critically, it “failed to deliver on its central promise of averting another lockdown”. With targets to deliver test results repeatedly missed, the country was plunged into two more.

The report, released on Wednesday and published as the Chancellor set out details of a £5.9billion funding boost for the NHS, could not be a more salutory reminder of the dangers of allocating vast sums of public money without a clear plan.

NHS Test and Trace was never part of the health service, having been created by the Department of Health and Social Care last May, when Boris Johnson promised a “world-beating” tracing system. The report by MPs on the PAC details a system that is anything but.

Testing

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
A woman uses a swab to take a sample from her nostril at a NHS Test and Trace Covid-19 testing unit at the Civic Centre in Uxbridge, Hillingdon, west London on May 25, 2021, as “surge testing” takes place in several areas of the country in order to keep on top of new Covid variants. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

In May 2020, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended that for a test and trace system to be effective, no more than 48 hours should elapse between identifying an original case and their contacts self-isolating.

Yet it took until January of this year before NHS Test and Trace met a far easier target – to reach 80 per cent of contacts within 72 hours – the report found.

As cases rose last autumn, waiting times for test results deteriorated.

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
A health worker disinfects a booth at a NHS Test and Trace Covid-19 testing unit at the Civic Centre in Uxbridge, Hillingdon, west London on May 25, 2021, as “surge testing” takes place in several areas of the country in order to keep on top of new Covid variants. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, labs were underused, with swathes of unused capacity, the report showed. “Between November 2020 and April 2021, the average utilisation of its laboratories was 45 per cent.”

As pressures mounted, performance worsened.

“Over Christmas 2020, when there appeared to be spare laboratory capacity and Covid-19 cases were rising, performance declined and it took longer to provide test results, with only 17 per cent of people receiving test results within 24 hours in December 2020.”

Meanwhile, uptake of testing remains dangerously low, with just 18 to 33 per cent of those with Covid-19 symptoms reporting getting a test, the report noted.

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
© Mike Kemp Free NHS test and trace lateral flow testing kits being given out in the city centre on 3rd August 2021 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Rapid lateral flow self testing kits are for people who do not have symptoms of coronavirus / COVID-19 and give a quick result. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

NHS Test and Trace is also responsible for the distribution of lateral flow tests under a programme which is supposed to detect asymptomatic cases of Covid-19, and halt their spread.

Around 700 million lateral flow tests have been sent out by NHS Test and Trace, with the Government encouraging people to take them twice weekly.

The system requires results to be registered online, allowing the spread of the virus to be tracked. But this was achieved in just 14 per cent of cases, the report found.

“It is not clear what benefit the remaining 595 million tests have secured,” MPs said.

Tracing

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
© 2021 Getty Images KNUTSFORD, ENGLAND – JULY 18: In this photo illustration a smartphone using the NHS Covid-19 app alerts the user “You need to self-isolate” on July 18, 2021 in Knutsford, England. Two-thirds of UK adults have received both Covid-19 doses, yet the NHS “Test and Trace” service is still issuing self-isolation orders to fully vaccinated individuals who have been exposed to infected people. With England’s rising infection rate, approximately 1 million people were ordered to self-isolate last week – many of them via the NHS Covid-19 app – creating what British media have dubbed the “pingdemic.” Tomorrow, England removes its remaining pandemic-era social restrictions, which is expected to lead to a further rise in infections and isolation orders. (Photo illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Quick results are crucial to break the chains of transmission, the very purpose of NHS Test and Trace.

But the failing system saw vast sums frittered on workers who were given little or nothing to do.

Last year, call handlers at NHS Test and Trace told how they were effectively being paid to “watch Netflix” at home, with one saying they received £4,500 without attending to a single call.

Shockingly, the report revealed that deployment of contact tracers fell to an all-time low during the last lockdown.

The report noted: “[NHS Test & Trace] has a 50 per cent target utilisation rate for its contact centre staff, but the highest reached was 49 per cent at the beginning of January 2021 and this had fallen to 11 per cent by the end of February 2021.

“Most of the testing and contact tracing capacity that [NHS Test & Trace] paid for has not been used,” the report bluntly states.

Spending

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
© 2021 Getty Images BOLTON, ENGLAND – MAY 15: A detailed view of a jacket worn by a member test centre staff, which reads ‘NHS Test and Trace’ at Makkah Mosque test unit on May 15, 2021 in Bolton, England. Officials here have deployed mobile testing units, and are urging eligible residents to be vaccinated, as the area sees an increase in Covid-19 cases and the virus variant first identified in India. (Photo by Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)

The sums awarded to NHS Test and Trace were vast, said MPs.

“NHS Test and Trace has been one of the most expensive health programmes delivered in the pandemic with an allocation of an eye-watering £37 billion over two years, although it underspent by £8.7 billion in its first year.

“It has focused on delivering programmes but its outcomes have been muddled and a number of its professed aims have been overstated or not achieved.

“For the vast sums of money set aside for the programme, equal to nearly 20 per cent of the 2020–21 NHS England budget, we need to see a proper long-term strategy and legacy.”

Much of the funding was spent on consultants, brought in from private firms to advise or provide technical skills.

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
Members of the public use a an NHS Test and Trace mobile coronavirus testing unit in Hayes, Hillingdon, west London on May 24, 2021. – Additional coronavirus testing was set to begin on May 24 in west London boroughs, including Hillingdon, following the identification of the variant first indentified in India. Using “surge testing” in several areas to keep on top of new variants such as the ‘Indian variant’, the UK government has insisted it remains on track to lift virtually all restrictions on public life from June 21, after a successful vaccination campaign. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Repeated promises by NHS Test and Trace to cut spending on consultants and employ more of their own staff made little difference.

Despite promises to reduce dependency on management consultants, it employed more in April 2021 than in December 2020, with 2,239 on its books, on average rates of £1,100 a day, and some paid more.

The report stated spending on consultants appeared to have got “out of hand” – with significant discrepancies in accounts of spending levels.

“[NHS Test and Trace] does not have a firm grip on its overall spending on consultants. It estimates that it will spend a total of £195 million on consultancy in 2021–22, but at the same time, indicated it would be spending £300m on its top 10 consultancy suppliers alone …

“Our first report on [NHS Test and Trace] concluded that it was overly reliant on expensive contractors and temporary staff. We found that by October 2020, it had signed 407 contracts worth £7 billion with 217 public and private organisations. By the end of December 2020, this had risen to over 600 contracts.”

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
A picture shows the NHS Test and Trace coronavirus testing centre at Heathrow Airport in, Hillingdon, west London on May 24, 2021. – Additional coronavirus testing was set to begin on May 24 in west London boroughs, including Hillingdon, following the identification of the variant first indentified in India. Using “surge testing” in several areas to keep on top of new variants such as the ‘Indian variant’, the UK government has insisted it remains on track to lift virtually all restrictions on public life from June 21, after a successful vaccination campaign. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Estimates from NHS Test & Trace this summer suggested that in 2020/21 it would spend £372 million on agency and contractor staff and £195 million on consultancy fees, compared with £52 million on permanent and seconded staff.

The organisation said these figures were expected to rise in final records.

Attempts to secure permanent staff have repeatedly failed, the report suggested. More than a third of the 523 recruitment campaigns up to the end of May 2021 failed to appoint anyone.

Scientists are still more scathing.

Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology, University of Reading, said: “The Public Accounts Committee report has highlighted a great many shortcomings in the NHS Test & Trace service, which it says has failed in its objective of breaking the chains of Covid-19 transmission.

“Baroness Harding previously boasted that the operation was the size of Tesco, without conceding that the supermarket chain actually works.”

What now?

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
© 2021 Getty Images BRENTWOOD, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 22: Patients make their way through the drive through section of a Covid-19 test site on February 22, 2021 in Brentwood, England. The county is working with Public Health England, NHS Test and Trace and Brentwood Borough Council to increase its testing capacity in the area after a local resident tested positive for the Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

MPs have urged the UK Health Security Agency – which is now responsible for NHS Test and Trace – to set out a clear plan to deliver its objectives.

They said: “[NHS Test & Trace] has focused on delivering programmes but its outcomes have been muddled and a number of its professed aims have been overstated or not achieved. For the vast sums of money set aside for the programme, equal to nearly 20 per cent of the 2020-21 NHS England budget, we need to see a proper long-term strategy and legacy.”

Health officials are now being asked to publish, by the end of this year, a performance management framework setting out how this will be achieved.

Dame Meg Hillier, the chairman of PAC, said such waste of public funds must never be repeated.

How NHS Test & Trace frittered away £37bn
© PA Wire/PA Images An NHS Test and Trace worker carries a test kit in a drive through testing centre in Southport, Lancashire. A testing blitz of 80,000 people in England is aiming to find “every single case” of the South Africa coronavirus variant in a bid to stop the spread of the more infectious strain. Picture date: Wednesday February 3, 2021. (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

“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.”

A government spokesperson said: “NHS Test & Trace has delivered on what it set out to do – break chains of transmission and save lives. To date, over 323 million tests have been delivered and almost 20 million people contacted who could otherwise have unknowingly transmitted the virus.

“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’ve 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.”

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