Poll shows public think privatised Covid test-and-trace system has failed as cost tops £37 billion

Verdict contrasts with widespread public respect publicly-run NHS vaccine roll-out

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Friday 05 March 2021 23:43 GMT
Serco workers help test people at a drive-in test site
Serco workers help test people at a drive-in test site (AFP via Getty Images)

The public overwhelmingly believe the government's privately run Covid test-and-trace system has been a failure, a new poll has found.

Research by Survation seen by The Independent shows that just 29 per cent of the public think the system has been successful compared to 60 per cent who say it is going badly.

The findings come as the small print of Rishi Sunak's budget show the system is to get another £15 billion cash injection, bringing its total cost to £37 billion.

Campaigners said the results showed that handing "huge chunks" of the Covid response to the private sector had been a "catastrophic mistake".

The highly negative view of the contact tracing system contrasts with the widespread positive impression of the NHS's own vaccine roll-out – which was largely conducted in-house.

80 per cent of people say the NHS vaccine drive is going well, compared to just 13 who say it is going badly, the Survation poll, commissioned by Keep Our NHS Public and We Own It found.

The poll found similarly low regard for the sourcing of PPE, which has been dogged with controversy over contracts. 57 per cent of people said this was going badly, and just 33 per cent well.

“This result just goes to show that it is the work of the NHS that is rightly favoured by the British public, and indeed, it is here where the public have seen the most benefit by far," said Dr John Puntis, Co-Chair of campaign group Keep Our NHS Public.

"Both the sourcing of PPE and the process of delivering contact tracing have spectacularly failed, with absolutely tragic results.

"Lives have been needlessly lost due to a desire to reward the friends of those in government, or by relying on the private sector instead of the NHS to deliver public health initiatives."

The test-and-trace system has received frequent criticism since its launch in April 2020 – with attention focused on outsourcing to firms like Serco and the use of £1,000-a-day private consultants.

In each new wave of Covid-19 the national system failed to produce the level of contact tracing required to stop the infection from spreading. Experts said local public health teams working with councils had significantly better results than the call-centre based system.


The Government's Scientific Advisor Group for Emergencies (Sage) said the system was having a "marginal impact" on the pandemic, while the National Audit Office in November said it "needs to learn lessons".

Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Friday announced that the test-and-trace system had finally found a person infected with the Brazilian variant – after a week-long hunt.

Budget small-print this week revealed that the test-and-trace service, run by Baroness Dido Harding, would get an extra £15 billion for the financial year 2021/22.

That comes on top of this year’s spending allocation of £22 billion, taking the total to a vast £37 billion over two years.

We Own It campaigns officer Pascale Robinson said: “This poll is a damning indictment of so much of the government’s handling of the response to the pandemic. Right from the start the government decided to hand huge chunks of it to the private sector with mostly catastrophic results.

“Now we know that not only has this outsourcing and privatisation resulted in countless lives being needlessly lost, the public think each aspect that the private sector has touched has been far less successful than the vaccination programme which is run by the NHS. The NHS has succeeded while the private sector has failed."

Ms Robinson said it was "abundantly clear that the government should learn the lessons of its vaccination programme - that the NHS and primary care services not run for profit are best placed to deliver an effective public health response".

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS Test and Trace is harnessing the expertise of local authorities and the support of businesses and the education sector to force coronavirus into retreat and help us on the road back to normality.

“We built the largest diagnostics network in UK history and since its inception NHS Test and Trace has played a vital role in cutting Covid-19 transmission - processing more than 89 million tests, setting up over 1,000 symptomatic testing sites and contacting 9.2 million people to self-isolate.”

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