According to a critical Commons Public Accounts Committee report, England’s Test and Trace programme has failed despite receiving ‘eye-watering’ sums of money

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The Commons Public Accounts Committee has published a critical report on England’s Test and Trace service, saying that it failed to meet its main objectives despite receiving ‘eye-watering’ sums of money.

The service ‘has not achieved its main objective to help break chains of COVID-19 transmission and enable people to return towards a more normal way of life’, the MPs said, even though it had been given £37 billion over 2 years, equal to nearly 20% of the entire 2020–2021 NHS England budget.

Despite the investment, making it one of the most expensive pandemic health programmes, the report points out that, since October 2020, ‘the country has had two more national lockdowns and case numbers have risen dramatically’.

Test and Trace was originally run by Baroness Dido Harding, but she stepped back from the role in April 2021.

Failed bold ambitions

The MPs found that, although 691 million lateral flow tests had been handed out, only 14% had been registered and the results reported, and there were continuing gaps in data collection.

Committee Chair, Dame Meg Hillier, said in a statement: ‘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.’

Consultants

The Test and Trace service had made commitments to reduce its dependency on consultants, who are paid an average of £1100 per day, but the Committee that found it employed more in April 2021 than in December 2020.

Dame Hillier said: ‘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 Government if we are to see any value for the money spent.’

Recommendations

The Committee’s recommendations include:

  • publishing objectives and metrics

  • better engagement of the public with Test and Trace because uptake is variable, especially among older people, men, and certain ethnic minorities

  • publishing evidence-based benefits of additional investment in the service

  • monitoring laboratory use and contact centre capacity, after previously having only used a minority of the capacity it paid for

  • clarifying how the service should work with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and local authorities.

‘The UKHSA will need to get to grips with the issues raised in our report and put in place a sustainable delivery model that makes the best use of national scale and local expertise’, the report concludes.

‘Saving lives’

In a statement, Dr Jenny Harries, UKHSA Chief Executive, said that the service ‘has played an essential role in combating this pandemic’.

She pointed to improvements in testing capacity, turnaround times, contact tracing, and collaboration with local authorities.

‘The fact is, NHS [Test and Trace] is saving lives every single day and helping us fight COVID-19 by breaking chains of transmission and spotting outbreaks wherever they exist.’

She added: ‘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.’

‘Disjointed’

Experts have been commenting on the report via the Science Media Centre.

Michael Hopkins, Professor of Innovation Management in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, said: ‘The fact is that NHS Test and Trace has structural failings because of the way it was set up. Specifically, it is not a cohesive system, as it does not control all of the resources needed to incentivise and encourage the public to engage with testing and isolation, as required. Instead, it was set up in a disjointed way to provide testing and contract tracing, but not the care for those who need it to ensure chains of infection are broken.’

Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, said: ‘Baroness Harding previously boasted that the operation was the size of Tesco, without conceding that the supermarket chain actually works. Greater attention seems to have been paid to headline-grabbing initiatives to build up the system than to ensuring it actually did its job.’

Professor Jim Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford, said that Test and Trace had ‘failed to halt the waves of infection; this was clear in real time last year.

‘The fundamental reason for the failure was clear by comparing ONS survey data on infections and the track/trace statistics.

‘Too small a proportion of contacts were identified and instructed to isolate in a timely manner.’

This article originally appeared on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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