Is Boris Johnson’s Test And Trace Service A Waste Of Money?

Two stark statistics – 532 more daily deaths and £12bn on test-and-trace – pose tough questions for the PM.

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When faced with a blizzard of statistics, it’s sometimes possible to lose sight of the bloody great mountain in front of your face. That was the problem today when, for all the hopeful talk about a vaccine breakthrough, the starkest new number was this: a further 532 people were recorded as having died in the UK from Covid-19.

That appalling statistic, the highest daily death toll since May 12, brings the total official number of direct Covid deaths to 49,770. Nearly fifty thousand dead in just a few months. And on the scientists’ (certainly Chris Whitty’s) preferred measure of “excess deaths”, the number is over 72,000.

As deaths lag behind cases and hospitalisations, the grim figures are likely to get worse before they get better. But they are a reminder of just how much more political trouble Boris Johnson would be in now if he hadn’t triggered the second national lockdown for England.

That may well be why Matt Hancock today shrugged off a barb from backbench grandee Sir Des Swayne about the much-criticised chart used by Patrick Vallance last week. When Sawyne said the amended graph’s 40% reduction in the death rate proved “the NHS would have coped, wouldn’t it?” Hancock replied with a firm, one-word reply of “No.”

One big difference between now and the first wave is that deaths in care homes appear to be much lower and that is in part due to one of the unheralded successes of the test and trace system: regular testing of staff and residents in care homes. When asked today if her £12bn service was largely “a waste of money”, Dido Harding replied it was “the complete opposite”, mainly because of its focus on care testing.

Still, Graham Stringer and Greg Clark had more than a point in the science and tech committee when they said any test system that failed to result in a self-isolation within 72 hours was basically wasting its time and our money. That’s why both turnaround times and contact tracing rates need to improve significantly in order to make the most of the breather the lockdown may produce in case numbers.

Harding’s newest catchphrase is that her system is a “team of teams”, made up of public health council chiefs focusing on tracing but also private sector testing expertise (though she claimed she couldn’t give a percentage split of how much the whole system spent on which bit). When asked if it was accurate to describe her service as ‘NHS Test and Trace’, she had a barb that “that is its name”, while defending all that private sector and retail input.‌

But just as with Kate Bingham (another wife of a Tory MP) and her Vaccines Task Force’s £670,000 on outside PR firm costs, the perception of taxpayers’ cash misspent in a time of crisis is one that is sure to be part of Labour’s attack lines long after the pandemic turns around. If you’re one of those millions of Brits who have had no state support in recent months, such sums leave a very bitter taste in the mouth.‌

Speaking of value for money, Harding also revealed for the first time today that she had lobbied for better financial support for those self-isolating. She said people don’t fully quarantine because “the need to keep earning and to be able to feed your family is a fundamental element of it”, though the actual size of the sums on offer were matters for the PM and chancellor.

Until a vaccine is widely available (and that may not be until next summer) it’s worth repeating again and again that the best way to stop the spread of this disease is to get people with the virus to stay at home and stay away from others. All the money and effort spent on testing and tracing will be irrelevant if people keep spreading the virus in the community once lockdown is eased.

That’s why it’s very strange indeed that we still have virtually no figures on the performance of the NHS test and trace app, in terms of how many people it has asked to self-isolate and how many using its contact-tracing function. This, even though Harding’s own husband, Tory MP John Penrose, is currently quarantining due to the tech.

Given the billions now being spent on furlough, and given today’s other awful new statistic – redundancies rose to a record high of 314,000 in the three months to September – it seems increasingly perverse for the Treasury and DWP not to increase and expand statutory sick pay at least until next spring. Like many other U-turns, maybe this one will be done so late that ministers get all of the flak for the delay and little of the credit for the change.

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