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NHS Test and Trace underperforming despite “unimaginable resources”

There is no clear evidence of NHS Test and Trace’s overall effectiveness nor whether it has been good value for money, a committee of MPs has concluded.

In May last year NHS Test and Trace (NHST&T) was set up with a budget of £22 billion. Since then it has been allocated £15 billion more – which totals £37 billion over two years.

The Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) justified the scale of investment, in part, on the basis that an effective test and trace system would help avoid a second national lockdown.

England has been through two more lockdowns since then.

In its report, the Public Accounts Committee says that while NHST&T clearly had to be set up and staffed at incredible speed, it must now “wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants”.

There is still no clear evidence of NHST&T’s overall effectiveness, the report says.

Furthermore, there’s no clarity on whether NHST&T’s contribution to reducing infection levels – as opposed to the other measures introduced to tackle the pandemic – can justify its “unimaginable” costs.

The scale of NHST&T’s activities is striking, particularly given its short life. Between May 2020 and January 2021, daily UK testing capacity for COVID-19 increased from around 100,000 to over 800,000 tests.

NHST&T had also contacted over 2.5 million people testing positive for COVID-19 in England and advised more than 4.5 million of their associated contacts to self-isolate.

But the percentage of total laboratory testing capacity used in November and December 2020 remained under 65%, and even with the spare capacity, NHST&T has never met the target to turn around all tests in face-to-face settings in 24 hours.

Low utilisation rates – well below the target of 50% – persisted into October last year. 

Set backs on roll-out

A major focus for NHST&T in early 2021 was the mass roll-out of rapid testing in different community settings, but there have been particular setbacks for the roll-out to schools, after NHST&T had significantly underestimated the increase in demand for testing when schools and universities returned last September.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The £23 billion test and trace has cost us so far is about the annual budget of the Department for Transport. Test and Trace still continues to pay for consultants at £1000 a day.

“Yet 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.

“DHSC and NHST&T must rapidly turn around these fortunes and begin to demonstrate the worth and value of this staggering investment of taxpayers’ money.”

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