'No clear evidence' £37bn Test and Trace system reduced Covid cases

10 March 2021, 06:00 | Updated: 14 March 2021, 06:52

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The boss of Test and Trace has defended the £37 billion service despite MPs saying there is "no clear evidence" it helped reduce coronavirus infection levels.

Baroness Dido Harding branded the system "an essential component in the fight against Covid" and said it would continue to be used for the foreseeable future.

She claimed the cost was "an awful lot less than £37 billion" but explained the hefty figure was necessary to maintain the mass testing regime in England, which she said accounted for around four-fifths of the budget.

Last week, the £22 billion service was given a £15 billion boost in Chancellor Rishi Sunak's Budget, taking the total bill to more than £37 over two years.

But on Wednesday, Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) behind a critical report, urged the government to justify the "staggering investment of taxpayers' money".

A group of cross-party MPs said ministers had justified the vast expenditure by saying it would help prevent a second national lockdown.

Watch: Report finding Test and Trace ineffective is 'complete nonsense' - Shapps

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A group of cross-party MPs have said there is no evidence the Test and Trace system has helped reduce Covid cases
A group of cross-party MPs have said there is no evidence the Test and Trace system has helped reduce Covid cases. Picture: PA

However, the group questioned the programme's effectiveness by noting that England is currently living under its third lockdown.

They also urged the scheme, led by Tory peer Dido Harding, to "wean itself off" reliance on thousands of "expensive" consultants and temporary staff, with some receiving £6,624 per day.

On Wednesday, LBC presenter Nick Ferrari challenged Mr Shapps over the Test and Trace "failure".

He questioned how the scheme could "waste" so much money yet be found ineffective by a panel of MPs, asking: "It was a failure, a shambles, wasn't it Mr Shapps?"

In response the minister branded it "extraordinary" that chair of the PAC, Ms Hillier, denigrated the scheme, insisting this finding was "complete nonsense".

He admitted he "did not know" if the finding was politically motivated but merely sought to "point it out."

The PAC said the programme does publish a significant amount of weekly data, including some that shows full compliance with the self-isolation rules relied upon by the scheme can be low.

Read more: 'All the modelling' suggests new Covid surge in 2021, Chris Whitty tells MPs

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Baroness Dido Harding has defended the Test and Trace service
Baroness Dido Harding has defended the Test and Trace service. Picture: PA

But it criticised the data for failing to show the speed of the process from "cough to contact" and therefore not allowing the public to judge the "overall effectiveness of the programme".

The MPs also criticised the scheme for struggling to consistently match supply and demand for the service, and therefore "resulting in either sub-standard performance or surplus capacity".

And they said it remained "overly reliant" on contractors and temporary staff after having to initially act quickly to scale up the service rapidly.

The report said the scheme admitted in February that it still employs around 2,500 consultants, at an estimated daily rate of around £1,100, with the best-paid consultancy staff on £6,624.

"It is concerning that the DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) is still paying such amounts - which it considers to be 'very competitive rates' to so many consultants," the report said.

After England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned of another "surge" in the virus later in the year, the PAC called for ministers to set out how the scheme will "cost-effectively maintain a degree of readiness".

Labour's shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said the report shows the significantly outsourced system has "failed the British people and led our country into restrictive lockdown after lockdown".

"It underlines the epic amounts of waste and incompetence, an overreliance on management consultants, taxpayers' cash splashed on crony contracts, all while ministers insist our NHS heroes deserve nothing more than a clap and a pay cut," she said.

Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O'Grady said the government's refusal to increase statutory sick pay had "massively undermined Test and Trace".

Royal College of Nursing general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said nurses "will be furious to hear of the millions of pounds being spent on private sector consultants".

The government said a further 231 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus as of Tuesday, while there were a further 5,766 lab-confirmed cases in the UK.

Data up to 8 March shows that of the 23,773,959 jabs given in the UK so far, 22,592,528 were first doses - a rise of 215,273 on the previous day.