Today
Sun 17 January 2021

There are more private sector consultants working for Baroness Dido Harding’s operation than civil servants working for the Treasury, reveals Sam Bright

The Government has revealed that 2,300 private sector consultants were working on the ‘Test and Trace’ programme at the last count – a figure that rivals a medium-sized Whitehall department.

Questioned by Labour MP Andy Slaughter about the cost and the responsibilities of external consultants working for Test and Trace, Health Minister Helen Whately revealed that, as of November, 2,300 consultants were working for the scheme on behalf of 73 different companies. This figure is comparative to the number of civil servants working for the Treasury (2,260) and the Department for International Trade (2,290).

It has cost £375 million to employ private sector consultants since the inception of Test and Trace in the early months of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Run by Conservative-appointed House of Lords member Baroness Dido Harding, the programme seeks to identify people with COVID-19 and ask their contacts to isolate.

Assuming that the Test and Trace programme has employed this number of consultants throughout its lifetime, the Government will have spent £163,043 per person. This, however, is likely to be an underestimate, with the number of consultants increasing over time in line with the expansion of the scheme.

While Whately did not specify the roles undertaken by these consultants, previous reports shed light on their duties. For instance, as reported by Byline Times in October, the Department of Health and Social Care paid £1,822 a day for outsourcing giant Capita to provide a “Chief Product Officer” – a senior role in the Test and Trace operation.

Government documents released in December also show the extensive scope of Deloitte’s work – a consultancy firm that provides nearly half (1,114) of the consultants working on Harding’s scheme. The £22.3 million contract awarded to the company for assisting with “phase 2” of the Government’s national testing operation stipulates that Deloitte would be responsible for the following, among other tasks:

  • Project management of operations at regional testing sites
  • Helping to increase capacity at laboratories and improving turnaround times
  • Creating a workforce plan for laboratories
  • Supporting the increased supply of testing kits and consumables
  • Supporting the delivery of home testing kits

However, the controversy surrounding this full-throttle outsourcing of Government work eventually caused a rethink. As revealed in December, the Government is attempting to reduce its reliance on private sector consultants – instead bringing a number of positions in-house. “This was explained as relating to the political fall-out around the awarding of [private sector] contracts, their rates and cost,” an individual with knowledge of the recruitment drive told Byline Times.

Indeed, the Test and Trace scheme hasn’t functioned as hoped, since its belated expansion in March 2020. The £22 billion programme failed to grow rapidly enough during the first wave of the virus and has subsequently struggled to cope with repeated surges of the disease.

A recent National Audit Office (NAO) report, for example, indicated that only 41% of people 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.

The scheme has also faced sustained criticism for relying too heavily on the private sector – fuelling inefficiency and waste. The same NAO report noted 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 found that, by June, call handler staff had only been occupied for 1% of their contracted paid hours.

As a result, during Johnson’s address to the nation yesterday evening in which he announced a new lockdown for England, there was virtually no mention of testing and contact tracing as a way out of the quagmire.

Yet, when this crisis is over, you can bet it won’t be Johnson who will be forced to pay for his wasted billions.


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