Wed 12 August 2020

Stephen Colegrave and Sam Bright explore new Government figures showing that ‘Pillar 2’ COVID-19 testing has fallen steeply in recent days as problems persist

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There has been a reticence by the Government to release details of its Coronavirus testing figures over the past two weeks – and now we know why.

Yesterday, testing data was added to the Government website up to 6 July. Although the total testing capacity was relatively high at 311,113, steadily rising from 207,540 on 1 June, the number of actual tests carried out was worryingly low – with less than a third of capacity used.

More concerning still, Pillar 2 testing, which is only undertaken by commercial partners – namely Deloitte – was very low at only 39,382. Pillar 2 is the general public testing for anyone who thinks they have symptoms or has been in contact with someone who has.

Remarkably, this figure has fallen sharply in recent days.

The Treasury has announced a £10 billion budget which will be paid to private companies for their services. Public Health England’s entire operating budget is just £400 million.

On 2 July, more than 161,000 Pillar 2 tests were logged but, since then, this has averaged at less than 50,000 a day. This drop in testing cannot be blamed on a reduction in infection rates, as the data has not shown this. The concern is that commercial partners, paid huge sums by the Government to deliver vital public services, are not doing their jobs properly.

The importance of Pillar 2 testing can be seen in the renewed lockdown in Leicester, following a spike in infections. The data for this decision apparently came from Pillar 2 testing, yet there were problems sharing data on the ground, as neither the area’s Director of Public Health nor the Council were given the information until the night before the Government made its decision.

Deloitte has been contacted for a response.

Specialists in Failure?

There are other issues. According to a Guardian report, several NHS providers are concerned with Deloitte’s handling of the programme.

The chief executive of Epsom Hospital said in an email, acquired by the newspaper, that the hospital would like to take over running the Chessington testing centre “because we really need it to work much better than it is”.

Outsourcing to private companies is a futile exercise if they cannot run services better than the Government. And, when such vast sums of public money are involved, we need to know – unequivocally – that they can do the job.

Indeed, the Treasury has announced a £10 billion budget for its “Test, Trace, Contain and Enable” programme, which will be paid to private companies for their services. In comparison, Public Health England’s entire operating budget is just £400 million.

Yet questions not only persist over Deloitte. Another outsourcing giant, Serco, has faced scrutiny over its contact tracing programme, not least as it recently accidentally shared the email addresses of 300 contact tracers – a mistake it was forced to apologise for. As for those contact tracers, The New York Times reports that they are poorly trained, low paid, and have been forced to work on systems that still aren’t ready.

Successive Conservative governments have made it easier for big companies to procure huge public contracts without much scrutiny – infiltrating basic services from immigration detention to the supervision of released prisoners. But the evidence doesn’t show us this works. The Conservatives might believe, ideologically and pragmatically, that private companies are more innovative, nimble and competent, but there is scant proof for these high-minded ideals.

And, in the middle of a public health crisis, this sort of proof is incredibly important.

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