Boris Johnson’s promise to deliver a “world-beating” test and trace scheme took yet another beating on Wednesday.
In a damning report by the Public Accounts Committee, MPs said the system had “failed to prove its effectiveness” despite “unimaginable” costs to the public.
Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the committee, added that the programme had failed to make a “measurable difference” to the spread of the pandemic.
But it did make a very big difference for two top bosses at Serco, one of the companies behind the test and trace scheme.
On the same day the MPs' report was published, they were revealed to have been handed pay of £7.4 million for 2020. This included bonuses worth £5.5 million.
The chief executive, Rupert Soames, and chief financial officer, Angus Cockburn, picked up the cash for the 12 months to the end of last year.
Test and trace is run by Lady Dido Harding, former chief executive of the telecoms company TalkTalk. It has so far been allocated around £37 billion of public money over two years—and has already spent £23 billion.
It is thought to be consuming the equivalent of a fifth of the NHS entire yearly budget.
Ministers show no sign of cutting off funds, despite telling health workers that it is impossible for them to find the cash to improve their offer of a miserly 1 percent pay “rise”.
And, despite the huge cost, the privatised health body is failing on almost all measures.
Test and trace was only reaching four in ten contacts of people testing positive for coronavirus by the end of last year. Figures have since improved, but that’s largely because the system changed the way it counts those “successfully” reached and told to isolate.
The report says, “It’s not clear whether its contribution to reducing infection levels–as opposed to the other measures introduced to tackle the pandemic—can justify its costs”.
Some of those costs are truly shocking.
Test and trace employs some 2,500 consultants of an estimated daily rate of between £1,100 and £6,624 a day. Harding says she regards this as “competitive”.
The complexity of the system was also laid bare with the news that it had involved more than 400 contracts being signed with 217 different suppliers. Some 70 percent of the value of those contracts were directly awarded rather than being put out to tender.
The government is refusing to publish details of meetings held by Harding. The Department of Health and Social Care has confirmed that it holds the information.
But it is refusing a Freedom of Information Act request because to do so “would exceed the appropriate cost limit” of £600.
Last spring, when the system was launched, health secretary Matt Hancock said the huge investment would prevent Britain from needing a second lockdown—but instead there were further stay at home warnings in both autumn and winter.
Boris Johnson joined the fanfare. In May last year, he told MPs that a “world-beating” test and trace scheme would be in place by June. He also said it would be able to turn around all tests in face to face settings in just 24 hours.
But like so many other Johnson boasts, that ambition has never been achieved.
A non-privatised system would have been more efficient.
Ian Hudspeth, who chairs the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said councils across the country had set up more than 300 local contact-tracing partnerships. These had successfully tracked many hard-to-reach cases.
Involving councils at an earlier stage “could have led to a more swift and effective test and trace system”, he added.
The report came as England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned of another surge in the virus later in the year.
There are few signs that this cash cow for the private sector will be up to the mark even then.
One of the most important ways of cutting the spread of infection would be to compensate everyone who is told they have the virus or that they must self-isolate. Instead, millions of people are forced to rely on statutory sick pay of just £95.85 a week.
But for the Tories, that would count as a terrible waste of money.