Tracking Spending: MPs criticise billions allocated to Test and Trace

April 3, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

MPs have voiced criticism over the £37bn which is set to be allocated to NHS Test and Trace over the next two years. They have questioned the effectiveness of the programme.

What does this mean?

NHS Test and Trace was set up in May 2020 in order to manage testing for COVID-19 across the UK. The organisation also traces potential contacts of those who test positive (through an NHS app and contract tracing staff). Despite the title “NHS” Test and Trace, much of the system’s work has been outsourced to private companies. Chancellor Rishi Sunak awarded the service £15bn in the Spring budget, adding to the £22bn which has already been spent on Test and Trace since the start of the pandemic.

MPs have directly criticised the amount spent on tracing, management of the service and high levels of outsourcing associated with Test and Trace. The Public Accounts Committee, made up of cross-party MPs, published a report into Test and Trace’s use of funds. They accused the government of overspending and underdelivering on this essential service, stating that the programme has not made a “measurable difference” to the spread of the virus. The group attacked payments of up to £6600 a day to private consultants, as well as the high level of funds dedicated to rapid tests which they allege have little proven efficiency. Further complaints include that the service has failed to meet basic targets such as turning around all tests within 24 hours and preventing further lockdowns.

What's the big picture effect?

The budget awarded to Test and Trace has been one of the most divisive public funding programmes to emerge from the pandemic. Successful testing and tracking systems are imperative to controlling the spread of COVID-19. However, The Public Accounts Committee believes simply spending further billions on the service will not solve its functional issues. Meg Hiller, leader of the committee, warned that public funds “cannot be treated by governments like an ATM machine”; the Shadow Minister for Schools stated this funding had effectively been “flushed down the toilet”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and NHS Test and Trace boss Dido Harding have strongly challenged such criticism. Harding asserted that “every pound spent is contributing towards our efforts to keep people safe” and emphasised that £10bn has been allocated to rapid testing in schools which has been instrumental in allowing children to return to education.

However, MPs criticism is mainly directed at the perceived ineffectiveness of expensive private outsourcing; over 400 contracts have been made with the 217 separate companies to provide the service. MPs believe this outsourcing is to blame for the disjointed running of Test and Trace. For example, in October half of contract tracers had no work despite England nearing the peak of the virus’ second wave. Oxfordshire council leader Ian Hudspeth argued that “a more effective test and trace system” would have been possible had the government involved local councils in plans instead of employing costly private sector firms. After the controversial announcement of a 1% pay rise for nurses, many have argued the new Test and Trace funding should be redirected to support frontline healthcare workers.

With a further £15bn set to be spent on the service, there are no doubts MPs will continue to keep the government in check to ensure this vital service functions efficiently; the debate surrounding Test and Trace finances is far from over. 

Report written by Amber Allen

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