Test and trace still failing to hit goals as money wasted and tests not returned, watchdog finds

Warning that system ‘plagued by same issues as at the start of the year’ – despite ballooning budget

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 25 June 2021 00:01

England’s test and trace system is still failing to curb Covid effectively, as money is wasted on idle staff, tests are not returned and self-isolation rules are broken, a watchdog is warning.

The much-criticised organisation has far to go “to achieve its objectives”, the National Audit Office says, with only limited progress made since its last scathing report before Christmas.

The conclusion comes despite ministers throwing money at the system, which has a startling budget of £37bn, although almost £9bn had been underspent by April, the NAO reveals.

Its report highlights multiple failings, including:

* “Low or variable” public compliance, as only a minority of infected people request a test and many others fail to self-isolate as required. However, no targets for improvement exist;

* Contract tracers working as little as 11 per cent of the time, in February, which means the organisation is “still paying for capacity it does not use”;

* Vital results data still not being shared with local authorities, which “makes it difficult for them to deal with localised outbreaks”;

* Just 14 per cent of 691 million lateral-flow tests sent out by the end of May were registered, with test and trace in the dark about whether the rest were used; and

* An increase in contracts handed out without competition – to £2.6bn in the first quarter of 2021, compared with £1.1bn last spring – despite a policy to cut the use of emergency regulations.

The NAO also warns of the danger of performance slipping further, with the “distraction” of test and trace becoming part of the new UK Health Security Agency by October 2021.

It calls on the Department of Health and Social Care to “set out plans by October 2021 for improving the overall test and trace process”.

And it hints this must include higher payments for missing work – a persistent criticism of the system – to “best support citizens to come forward for tests and comply with self-isolation requirements”.

The report says test and trace did hit targets for reaching people testing positive and for identifying their contacts, but “performance slipped a little below both targets during April”.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Some pressing challenges need to be tackled if it is to achieve its objectives and deliver value for taxpayers, including understanding how many lateral flow devices are actually being used and increasing public compliance with testing and self-isolation.”

And Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Account Committee, which shadows the NAO, warned the system “is still plagued by the same issues as at the start of the year”.

It must “get to grips with some fundamental parts of the process, such as its timeliness in reaching contacts for all the tests it provides, people coming forward for tests when they have symptoms, and compliance with self-isolation”, the Labour MP said.

The NAO points out that test and trace is “responsible for driving up public compliance”, with the Sage advisory group warning at least 80 per cent of identified contacts need to be self-isolating.

But surveys pointed to compliance “ranging from 43 per cent to 62 per cent” – and the organisation has set no target.

NHS Test and Trace has been hugely controversial from the start, with ministers ridiculed for calling it “world beating”. Its head, Dido Harding, stepped down last month – but is now set to bid to run the NHS.

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