Coronavirus: NHS chief and leading health experts question ‘enormous cost’ of Operation Moonshot

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

The government should consider redirecting funds from the estimated £100bn bill for Operation Moonshot to other parts of the country’s coronavirus response, an NHS chief and other health experts have said.

Figures from NHS Providers and Independent Sage group have called into question the government’s new mass testing programme, which aims to increase the UK’s capacity to 10 million tests a day.

No 10 is hoping to roll out rapid-fire Covid-19 tests within the wider community that could provide a result in just 20 minutes, but critics have pointed out that the appropriate technology does not yet exist – something the government has openly acknowledged.

Concern has also been raised among statisticians and health officials that Moonshot could return thousands of false positives, forcing people into unnecessary self-isolation.

Leaked documents seen by the BMJ medical journal suggested the project could have a price tag of £100bn – close to that of the £114bn budget given to NHS England in 2018/19.

NHS Providers, which represents all NHS trusts, called for a “proper debate about prioritisation” before committing to the project.

“There are a number of other key interventions that we know would also make a real difference for NHS patients and staff,” Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, told The Independent.

“These include much wider capital investment to modernise and refurbish the NHS estate, more hospital beds, increased resources for mental health, additional money for community services to meet growing demand for rehabilitation, and for ambulance services.

“We need additional investment in staff to tackle shortages, secure the right skills and ensure fair and appropriate levels of pay.

“It’s vital too that we see sustainable funding for social care which has been neglected for so long by successive governments.

The Moonshot proposals come as the current testing programme faces considerable criticism for struggling to meet demand.

Many people who have tried to access a test this week have been met with an error message telling them to try again, and warning them not to call the helplines.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the government’s testing system appears “on the verge of collapse.”

“It is important to be ambitious for the future testing programme but there are some really important immediate needs like more testing capacity and faster test turnaround times that need focus and investment too and can’t wait for a future moonshot," says Mr Hopson.

“Getting Test and Trace right is fundamental but if there is to be significant extra spending it’s vital that we have a proper debate about prioritisation.”

And on Tuesday, NHS Test and Trace's director of testing apologised to people who were unable to get a test.

The Independent Sage group has meanwhile expressed concern over Moonshot’s reliance on private sector firms, given their questionable performance so far in implementing Test and Trace.

For cases handled by local health protection teams, 96.6 per cent of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to 2 September, according to government data.

By contrast, for those cases handled either online or by call centres, many of which have been outsourced to private firms such as Serco and Sitel, 61.3 per cent of close contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate.

In a report released on Friday, Independent Sage welcomed plans to improve Test and Trace and explore easy-to-access technologies, but insisted “more detail about the approach is required”.

“We worry about the enormous projected cost of £100 billion – close to the entire annual NHS budget, with poor rationale, and its reliance on private sector contracts, given their poor performance in the testing and tracing systems so far,” the group said.

Sir David King, chair of Independent Sage, said Moonshot was a “knife edge opportunity to improve testing, tracing and isolation to get cases down, giving us a good chance of being able to get together with family at Christmas.

“Let’s invest a fraction of £100 billion in doing that now instead of on a new magic bullet that isn’t available for another six months.”

Dr Joshua Moon, a fellow at Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, said the project could “fail on implementation grounds, never mind the actual technology itself which doesn’t yet exist”.

“The question is would the money be better spent on, say, increasing support, providing more direct medical support, or food, to individuals who are self-isolating, providing financial support to businesses that are struggling,” he told The Independent. “Money better spent than aiming for a moonshot.”

Defending Operation Moonshot in parliament on Thursday, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “I've heard the naysayers before and I've heard the people on the other side complain we'll never get testing going – and they're the same old voices.

“I'm looking forward to rolling out this programme and this work, which has been under way for some time already, I'm absolutely determined that we will get there.

“And if everything comes together, and if the technology comes off, it'll be possible even for challenging sectors like theatres to get closer to normal before Christmas.”

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