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Matt Hancock is facing fresh criticism over his Test and Trace app plan after the government revealed it had spent nearly £12m on the ill-fated project.
Shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves hit out at the “staggering” failure to deliver the promised technology as health minister Lord Bethell confirmed the cost in the House of Lords.
She said that cash used could have been spent instead on better personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS and social care staff, or on four million masks for the general public.
Months after first promising the UK’s own bespoke Test and Trace app for the NHS, Hancock last week finally abandoned the project in favour of a separate app that was compatible with Apple and Google privacy curbs.
Asked by independent peer Lord Truscott just how much “this technical fiasco has cost taxpayers”, Bethell replied: “The cost to date has been £11.8m.”
The new figure is the latest twist in a saga that saw Hancock promising in April that the NHSX app would be ready by “the middle of May”. He described it as “crucial”, while No.10 said it would be “a key part of the surveillance programme going forward”.
The app was then downgraded to just the “cherry on the cake” of the wider NHS Test and Trace programme – and finally abandoned last week in favour of a model more acceptable to Google and Apple.
Reeves told HuffPost UK: “It is staggering that we were promised by ministers that this app they were developing would play a vital role – that it would be up and ready by mid-May, and now a month later has been ditched.
“The government ignored warnings and evidence from other countries that this particular project would not work and instead the ministers squandered at least £11.8m of public money on this costly and chaotic error.
“That £11.8m could have been spent on better protective equipment for health and care workers or buying four million packs of face coverings for the public and particularly those experiencing the greatest hardship. That would have made a real difference and helped limit the spread of coronavirus.”
Hancock insisted on Tuesday that “ensuring that we use technology to its best possible effects is incredibly important”.
The health secretary is also facing claims from Labour that he spent £100m on a call centre run by private sector firms Serco and Sitel, where some tracers have claimed they have not enough work to do.
Boris Johnson promised a “world beating” system would be in place by June 1, but even NHS Test and Trace chief Baroness Harding has admitted it is not the “gold standard” yet.
In its first two weeks, the human-based version of the system failed to contact a quarter of those who tested positive for Covid-19.
The Department of Health and Social Care has insisted that NHS Test and Trace has made a solid start and improvements will follow in coming weeks.
More than 90% of those who were managed to be identified by tracers have supplied details of their “close contacts”, defined as people who spend more than 15 minutes with others less than two metres away.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We were absolutely right to invest in the Isle of Wight phase – it has provided us with valuable information that we will now use to build an app that is right for the British public.
“Our rigorous testing identified issues both with our app and the Google/Apple API, which did not estimate distance in the way we required. So if we had simply followed their approach we would be no further towards building a viable product.
“We are now working on a solution that brings together what we have learned as we develop a new version of an app to support the entire NHS Test and Trace service.”