Former top civil servant calls NHS Test and Trace ‘the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time’

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Watch: Grant Shapps defends NHS Test and Trace in wake of report

The £37bn NHS Test and Trace scheme set up to fight the spread of coronavirus has been described as “wasteful and inept” by a former top civil servant.

A report into the scheme, written by the Commons public accounts committee (PAC), was highly critical and concluded that there was “no clear evidence” that it contributed to a reduction in infection levels.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget last week included an additional £15bn for the scheme, taking the total bill to more than £37bn over two years.

But the PAC report called on the government to justify the “staggering investment” of taxpayers’ money and 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.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 10: NHS Test and Trace notices displayed outside King Solomon Academy in Westminster on January 10, 2021 in London, England. England is expanding rapid
NHS Test and Trace notices displayed outside King Solomon Academy in Westminster. (Getty)

Reacting to the findings of the report, Nick Macpherson, who served as the permanent secretary to the Treasury from 2005 to 2016, tweeted that the scheme “wins the prize for the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”.

He added: “The extraordinary thing is that nobody in the government seems surprised or shocked.”

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

Health secretary Matt Hancock today defended the scheme, saying he believed test and trace had done an “amazing job”.

He 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.”

Transport secretary Grant Shapps also defended test and trace, saying the pandemic would have been “one heck of a lot worse” without it.

He told Sky News: “It certainly hasn’t been cheap fighting coronavirus but it has absolutely been necessary.

“9.1 million people have been contacted by test and trace. These are people who otherwise would be wandering round often unaware that they had coronavirus and spreading it around further.

“Whatever the coronavirus experience we have had as a nation, good or bad, it would have been one heck of a lot worse if we didn’t have a test and trace system which has contacted so many people and prevented the disease spreading further.”

When asked about the scheme during PMQs, Boris Johnson said: “It is thanks to NHS Test and Trace that we are able to send kids back to school and begin cautiously and irreversibly to reopen our economy and restart our lives.”

However, shadow health minister Justin Madders, said the programme “is what incompetence looks like”, while Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth added that the scheme “was never going to be effective unless it built on… both retrospective and forward contact tracing”.

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”.

Dr Julia Grace Patterson, the chief executive of campaign group Every Doctor, brought up the controversy over nurses’ pay, tweeting: “We could afford £7,000 a day to pay Test and Trace consultants.

“But we can’t afford a pay rise above 1% for NHS staff, who have had pay freezes and real terms cuts since 2010.”

Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of Independent Sage, said test and trace should not have been labelled an NHS service as “it was led by SERCO, centralised and wasted billions on private consultants who didn't have the expertise of public health professionals”.

SOUTHPORT, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 03: NHS Test and Trace staff begin Covid-19 testing at a drive in centre to track down a South African coronavirus variant found in the area on February 03, 2021 in Southport, United Kingdom. Health authorities have found more than 100 cases of a coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa,  prompting a scramble to deploy new testing initiatives across eight areas in England. It is thought the variant is more contagious, but not more deadly, than the variant that has predominated in England throughout the covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
NHS Test and Trace staff begin COVID-19 testing at a drive-in centre in Southport. (Getty)

She added that Independent Sage “have been pleading with the government” to reform the system “but it was all ignored”.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has warned of another “surge” in the virus later in the year, which the PAC highlighted in urging ministers to set out how test and trace will “cost-effectively maintain a degree of readiness”.

Watch: How England will leave lockdown

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