The NHS Test and Trace programme “has not achieved its main objective” to enable people to return to a more normal way of life despite being handed “eye-watering” sums of money, according to a report by MPs.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that the programme’s outcomes have been “muddled” and a number of its aims have been “overstated or not achieved”.
Meanwhile it has been handed the equivalent of 20% of the NHS’s entire annual budget – £37 billion over two years.
The committee also criticised handling of the cash, highlighting that the programme has still not managed to reduce the number of expensive contractors – who are paid an average of £1,100 per day – and has not developed a “flexible” approach to using laboratories, which “risks wasting public money”.
Test and Trace’s “continued over-reliance on consultants is likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds”, the report states.
It has been focused on getting programmes up and running and “paid less attention to ensuring these programmes delivered the benefits they promised”, it adds.
And uptake of services provided by the programme is “variable” as some vulnerable people are much less likely to take a test than others.
MPs on the cross-party committee said that as the programme is moved into the new UK Health Security Agency it needs a “proper long-term strategy”.
Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “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.
“Only 14% of 691 million lateral flow tests sent out had results reported, and who knows how many took the necessary action based on the results they got, or how many were never used.
“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.”
The conclusions in the report include:
– NHS Test and Trace “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 programme’s “continued over-reliance on consultants is likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds”.
– Uptake of services provided by Test and Trace is “variable” and “only a minority of people experiencing Covid-19 symptoms get a test”, with some groups less likely to take tests compared with others.
– The programme’s laboratories approach and contact centre usage is “still not flexible enough to meet changing demand and risks wasting public money”.
MPs have set out a series of recommendations and suggested improvements to the programme.
The Test and Trace programme was rapidly developed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, spearheaded by Baroness Harding, with the objective of testing the nation and tracing contacts of positive cases.
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said in a statement: “NHS Test and Trace (NHSTT) has played an essential role in combating this pandemic.
“As the Public Accounts Committee acknowledges, there have been improvements in testing capacity, turnaround times and speed and reach of contact tracing – and improved collaboration with local authorities.
“The fact is NHSTT is saving lives every single day and helping us fight Covid-19 by breaking chains of transmission and spotting outbreaks wherever they exist.
“More than 323 million tests have now been carried out across the UK. NHSTT has now contacted more than 19.9 million people, helping to slow the spread of the virus.
“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.”