Test and Trace urged to 'wean itself off' thousands of private consultants

Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier. Picture: Stefano Cagnoni

Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier - Credit: Stefano Cagnoni

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 has said.

Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) behind a critical report, urged the government to justify the “staggering investment of taxpayers’ money”.

The MPs said ministers had justified the vast expenditure on preventing a second national lockdown but, questioning the programme’s effectiveness, noted England is currently living under its third.

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.

Ms Hillier 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 £1,000 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 (Department of Health and Social Care) and NHS T&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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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.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC: “The team have built this testing capacity from nothing a year ago and so they’ve done an amazing job and I’m incredibly grateful to them.”

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”.

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”.

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 is still paying such amounts – which it considers to be ‘very competitive rates’ to so many consultants,” the report said.

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.

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 with the virus as of March 9, while there were a further 5,766 lab-confirmed cases in the UK.

Data up to March 8 shows of the 23,773,959 jabs given in the UK so far, 22,592,528 were first doses – a rise of 215,273 on the previous day.

Interim executive chair of the national institute for health protection, Baroness Dido Harding, said Test and Trace is making a "real impact in breaking chains of transmission”: "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 per cent of NHS Test and Trace’s budget spent on buying and carrying out coronavirus tests."

She said Test and Trace has now carried out over 83 million coronavirus tests - "more than any other comparable European country" - and claimed the scheme has successfully reached 93.6pc of the contacts of positive cases.

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