Boris Johnson’s under-fire Test and Trace service will get another £15 billion in government cash, the small print of Rishi Sunak’s latest Budget has confirmed.
The latest tranche of funding for 2021/22 comes on top of this year’s spending allocation of £22 billion – taking the total cost of the controversial service to an enormous £37 billion over two years.
MPs, responding to the eye-watering figures, said ministers must do more to prove that the system – run by Tory peer Dido Harding – was giving taxpayers value for money.
The figures emerged with ministers under fire for offering NHS staff a pay rise of just one per cent in the coming year – a proposition described by the nurses’ union as “pitiful”.
Although not mentioned regularly in the Budget Red Book, the small print confirms that Test and Trace will receive “a further £15 billion next year” – on top of the £22 billion it received this financial year up to 31 March.
The new cash injection will come from a special “Covid reserve”, worth £55 billion. Just £700 million of that fund will go to “catch-up” teaching for schools – while £1.6 billion will go on vaccine procurement.
A further £20 million per month was allocated in the Budget for a discretionary fund to help councils support people who can’t afford to self-isolate when they have Covid-19.
Test and Trace has come under frequent criticism since it was launched last April, with its outsourcing of essential services to firms like Serco and use of £1,000-a-day private consultants coming under scrutiny while it failed to deliver contact tracing rates seen as crucial to stopping the spread of Covid-19.
In an interim report last November, the National Audit Office said the government “needs to learn lessons”, adding that the service needs to be “able to make a bigger contribution to suppressing the infection than it has to date”.
Last year, Sage scientists said the expensive system was having a “marginal impact” on stopping the march on the pandemic.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders told HuffPost UK: “With such a huge sum being set aside for Test and Trace you would hope that moving forward it will be performing better.
“But the fact that there are still multiple problems with its performance and the government have so far refused to publish their business case [claiming the service can prevent lockdowns] shows a worrying level of denial about tackling what will be a big part of the plan to return to normality.
“Ministers need to be honest with themselves and with the public about whether these huge sums of money are delivering what is needed. They need to give the public much greater reassurance that they are getting real value for money from the billions spent on Test and Trace”.
Commons public accounts committee chair Meg Hillier added: “Matt Hancock massively oversold this, saying it was part of the NHS when it’s not. It’s costing a lot of money and it’s unclear whether it is having more than a marginal impact on the pandemic. And I think if you compare it with the vaccines, the order of magnitude of spending is massively different.
“If this is a permanent agency set-up we need to know what it’s going to look like when it starts delivering what is likely to be routine testing and tracing. Or is this £37bn is being spent on something that’s a temporary fix? Either way, the taxpayer deserves to know more about how effective it is, pound for pound.
“For the eye watering sums of money spent, even in the context of Covid, we need to know that this money isn’t just nugatory spending, that there is a legacy left as a result of this.”