NHS Test and Trace has failed to achieve its “main objective” of helping break chains of COVID transmission and allowing people to return to normality despite being given an “eye-watering” amount of money, a highly-critical report from MPs has said.
According to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the programme’s outcomes have been “muddled” and a number of its goals have been “overstated or not achieved”.
Test and Trace was developed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to test the public and trace the contacts of positive coronavirus cases.
But its performance has been criticised in the past, including by the PAC.
The MPs said in an initial report in March that despite having access to “unimaginable resources”, Test and Trace could not produce “clear evidence” it had reduced the spread of the virus.
Since the virus emerged, Test and Trace has been given £37bn – a sum equivalent to 20% of the entire annual budget of the NHS.
This is a particular focus of the committee’s second report into Test and Trace, with the MPs saying that the programme’s “continued over-reliance on consultants is likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds”.
The report says Test and Trace has failed to reduce its reliance on expensive contractors, who are paid an average of £1,100 per day.
The MPs also bemoan the fact that there is yet to be a “flexible” approach to using laboratories, something that “risks wasting public money”.
According to the committee, Test and Trace has been focused on getting programmes up and running and “paid less attention to ensuring these programmes delivered the benefits they promised”.
Uptake of its services is described in the report as “variable” and “only a minority of people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms get a test”, with some vulnerable people much less likely to take a COVID test than others.
Test and Trace is due to be moved into the new UK Health Security Agency, a development the MPs say should be used to set out a proper long-term strategy” for the programme.
Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “The national Test and Trace programme was allocated eye-watering sums of taxpayers’ money in the midst of a global health and economic crisis.
“It set out bold ambitions but has failed to achieve them despite the vast sums thrown at it.
“Only 14% of 691 million lateral flow tests sent out had results reported, and who knows how many took the necessary action based on the results they got, or how many were never used.
“The continued reliance on the over-priced consultants who ‘delivered’ this state of affairs will by itself cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds.
“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.
“This legacy has to be a focus for the government if we are to see any value for the money spent.”
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said Test and Trace had “played an essential role in combating this pandemic”.
“As the Public Accounts Committee acknowledges, there have been improvements in testing capacity, turnaround times and speed and reach of contact tracing – and improved collaboration with local authorities,” she said.
“The fact is NHSTT is saving lives every single day and helping us fight COVID-19 by breaking chains of transmission and spotting outbreaks wherever they exist.
“More than 323 million tests have now been carried out across the UK. NHSTT has now contacted more than 19.9 million people, helping to slow the spread of the virus.
“Testing, contact tracing and the wall of defence built by our vaccination programme are all fundamental to our ongoing efforts to keep people safe as we return to a more normal way of life.”
A government spokesperson said: “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 have 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.”