'Disastrous handling of test and trace'

Parliamentary spending watchdog slams government for £23bn wasted on privatised test and trace system

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The government has been accused of wasting a colossal £23bn on a failed test and trace programme that has not made any “measurable difference” in fighting the pandemic or avoiding costly lockdowns, MPs have said in a damning new report.

The report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that there was “no clear evidence” of the programme’s “overall effectiveness”, noting that while the billions in investment were initially justified because the system would ostensibly help avoid lockdowns, two more lockdowns have occurred since NHS Test and Trace’s inception.

Unite has long criticised how the NHS Test and Trace system was devised and run, with heavy private sector involvement. Despite its name, NHS Test and Trace is separate from the health service and is run mostly by a litany of private companies.

Outsourcing giants Serco and Sitel, for example, were contracted to run the contact tracing service. The contract was awarded without public competition last May, and in August it was revealed that the service run by the two firms had managed to reach only just over half of the close contacts of those testing positive for coronavirus.

Privatised labs have also been involved in NHS Test and Trace, and have also failed to run an efficient and effective service, with massive Covid testing backlogs in September and October last year.

Most recently, Unite highlighted health secretary Matt Hancock’s announcement of the creation of two additional ‘mega labs’ which will be run by private companies for profit. The mega labs are part of the government’s test and trace contract, and Unite has raised concerns about the quality of these private labs’ work and treatment of staff.

The Public Accounts Committee report went on to highlight what Unite has long said about the importance of test and trace being run by local public health teams working alongside local authorities.

“A range of stakeholders have queried why local authorities and NHS primary care bodies were not more directly involved in testing and tracing activities at the outset, given their existing networks, experience and expertise,” the report noted.

An overreliance on expensive consultants is at the heart of NHS Test and Trace’s massive expenditure of taxpayers’ money, the Public Accounts Committee noted, with about 2,500 consultants being used, some charging as much as £6,600 a day.

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Labour MP Meg Hillier, gave a damning account of the test and trace programme, highlighting that its budget of £37bn over two years — £23bn of which has already been spent –was equivalent to the entire Department of Transport’s  budget.

“Yet despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project Test and Trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic, and the promise on which this huge expense was justified – avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice,” she said.

“DHSC [the Department of Health and Social Care] and NHST&T [NHS Test and Trace] must rapidly turn around these fortunes and begin to demonstrate the worth and value of this staggering investment of taxpayers’ money,” she added.

“British taxpayers cannot be treated by Government like an ATM machine. We need to see a clear plan and costs better controlled.”

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail likewise slammed the government for wasting billions on a privatised test and trace system.

“This report is scathing about the government’s disastrous handling of test and trace,” she said. “Over two years, £37 billion has been dished out to government contacts in the private sector for a system that completely failed to do what it was supposed to.

“Time and again, ministers were told that local authorities and health services were best placed to run test and trace in their own areas. Time and again, the government ignored the evidence and continued ploughing money into outsourced services that were overly centralised and ineffective,” she added.

“Even ignoring the issue of cronyism at the heart of government, ministers’ dangerous obsession with privatisation – to the point of serious detriment to the public health and repeated economic shutdown – cannot go unacknowledged.

“The creeping tide of privatisation that ministers have used NHS Test and Trace to further is still ongoing and is designed to impact health services years into the future,” Cartmail continued.

“As Unite has previously warned, Dido Harding’s organisation is setting up unneeded testing laboratories across the country that will be run by profit driven firms at the expense of local NHS services and personnel.

“The Tories justified starving the NHS of funds for years in the name of fiscal responsibility,” she went on to say. “Yet they are more than happy to blow billions upon billions on a privatised system that was a horrible failure when it was most needed and cost countless lives as a result.

“Members of the public will be rightly asking why billions are available for Tory mates to fail miserably, while NHS staff are denied a fair pay rise after months of selfless public service.” 

By Hajera Blagg

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