Johnson defends NHS Test and Trace after MPs question its ‘staggering’ cost

Jane Kirby and Emma Bowden, PA
·3-min read

The Prime Minister has defended NHS Test and Trace, which could end up costing the taxpayer £37 billion, after MPs said there was “no clear evidence” it cut coronavirus infections.

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.”

It comes after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he believed the team behind Test and Trace had done “an amazing job”.

Mr 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.”

Last week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget included an additional £15 billion for Test and Trace, taking the total bill to more than £37 billion over two years.

But a report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has called on the Government to justify the “staggering investment” of taxpayers’ money.

It 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.

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”.

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”.

And they said it remained “overly reliant” on contractors and temporary staff after having to initially act quickly to scale up the service rapidly.

Covid-19 case rates in UK nations
(PA Graphics)

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 (Department of Health and Social Care) is still paying such amounts – which it considers to be ‘very competitive rates’ to so many consultants,” the report said.

Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said the report shows the significantly outsourced system has “failed the British people and led our country into restrictive lockdown after lockdown”.

“It underlines the epic amounts of waste and incompetence, an over-reliance on management consultants, taxpayers’ cash splashed on crony contracts, all while ministers insist our NHS heroes deserve nothing more than a clap and a pay cut,” she said.

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”.