Today
Sun 24 January 2021

The spending watchdog documents the failures of the corporate-led ‘Test and Trace’ system, yet says we should brace for more private sector involvement in the Coronavirus response

The Government is set to imminently award a series of private sector contracts worth £16.2 billion, in an attempt to ramp-up its COVID-19 ‘Test and Trace’ system.

A new report from the Government spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), explains how the system has failed this year and the scale of planned investment in 2021.

It notes that £22 billion has currently been set aside by the Government for the Test and Trace programme during the 2020/21 financial year, although the vast majority of this budget has yet to be spent.

In order to accelerate its ‘Moonshot’ testing programme, involving the mass distribution of lateral flow Coronavirus tests – which can provide results in 15 minutes – the Government is planning to give out 154 contracts worth £16.2 billion before March 2021.

This is despite persistent concerns – validated by the NAO – that the Government’s procurement system has been plagued by cronyism and inefficiency during the pandemic so far.

There are similarly widespread concerns about the efficacy of rapid fire tests. As highlighted by Birmingham University biostatistics professor Jon Deeks, Government statistics show that, in Liverpool, lateral flow tests picked up just 50% of positive cases identified by the “gold standard” (and slower) PCR tests. What’s more, 30% of high-viral-load cases were missed by the rapid tests. Greater Manchester and Sheffield have consequently both instructed care homes not to use lateral flow devices.

The NAO report also unpicks the multifaceted problems experienced by the Test and Trace programme so far – a system that has been used in many countries to successfully track and control the spread of COVID-19.

For example, it notes how the Government spent an initial £720 million on private sector contracts for 18,000 contact tracing call handlers – awarded to the outsourcing giants Serco and Sitel. However, the NAO claims that, by June, call handler staff had only been occupied for 1% of their contracted paid hours.

The Government subsequently reduced the number of call handlers in August to 12,000, yet the amount of time utilised by staff still remained well below a target of 50% throughout September and for much of October. “This means substantial public resources have been spent on staff who provided minimal services in return,” the report states.

The NAO also catalogues the litany of publicly-reported failures suffered by the Test and Trace system since its inception. Only 41% of people, for example, received their test results within 24 hours between the end of May and early November – despite Boris Johnson’s pledge in June that all COVID-19 test results would be turned around in 24 hours by the end of that month.

While the system’s performance did improve in June, the proportion of tests turned around in 24 hours deteriorated to a low of 14% in mid-October, before rising to 38% in early November.

Indeed, the NAO report portrays an inconsistent system that could not handle high demand. The authors note that Baroness Dido Harding, head of Test and Trace, infamously claimed that no one could have predicted September’s surge in demand – when children returned to school, students filed back to university, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ programme concluded.

This erratic performance has also been seen in the case of contact tracing. At the end of May, the proportion of contacts reached within 48 hours stood at 87%. However, by the middle of October – amid a second wave of the virus – this figure had fallen to 64%.

“Test and Trace is core to the UK’s pandemic response,” Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, says in response to the report. “It must improve its performance with a focus on effective engagement with the public and integration with local efforts to improve tracing.”

The Government has relied on the private sector to steer it through the pandemic and it seems as though ministers and officials are willing to die on this hill. Huge private sector spending is planned for the next few months – despite the repeated, damning failures of this approach.


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