POLITICS
18/01/2021 23:32 GMT | Updated 19/01/2021 03:05 GMT

How Can A Government That Spends Billions On Mass Testing Quibble Over Helping The Low Paid?

Huge sums laid bare to Public Accounts Committee, but what about self-isolation payments?

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When politicians appear to defend the bureaucracy of a system rather than the needs of the public, they can sound tone deaf. When that defence involves matters of life and death, they risk coming across as robotic at best, callous at worst.‌

So it’s not hard to imagine that if Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford were a Tory minister, he would have got a right royal kicking from Labour. Why? Well, Drakeford tried to defend the lower vaccination rate in Wales by arguing that it would be “logistically very damaging” to try to use up all its stocks of the Pfizer vaccine too soon.

Saying that his country’s latest supply “has to last us until the beginning of February”, he told Radio 4’s Today programme: “The sensible thing to do is to use the vaccine you’ve got over the period that you’ve got it for, so that your system can absorb it, they can go on working, that you don’t have people standing around with nothing to do.”

The instant thought for many would have been, ‘well if more high risk groups are vaccinated sooner rather than later, so what if the logistics people are left empty handed for a bit?’ Former Tory cabinet minister Stephen Crabb duly said Drakeford’s remarks were “astonishing” and vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said this was not just a race against time but “a race against death”. The PM’s spokeswoman Allegra Stratton gently suggested that surely all devolved leaders wanted to “see jabs in everybody’s arms as quickly as is sensibly possible”.

Sure enough, Welsh government minister Kirsty Williams was forced to stress “we are not delaying the use of Pfizer vaccine to anybody in Wales”. Drakeford himself then had to issue a video on Twitter to declare: “Let me be completely clear [always an intro that suggests the speaker has been less than, er, clear]..nobody is holding back vaccines”.

Not that the government was having it all its own way either. Therese Coffey wondered aloud on Facebook why some over 70s in her local area were getting letters when some over 80s still hadn’t been jabbed. “I know it is both distressing and annoying when people hear that other cohorts of a lower priority are being vaccinated ahead of our oldest and most vulnerable”. She too had to later clarify her local NHS was contacting all over 80s to keep them informed. More proof of the pitfalls of ‘lies, damned lies and logistics’?

Given the lack of evidence so far about the impact of vaccination on transmission of the virus, it’s notable that mass testing is still a key weapon (alongside lockdown itself) in curbing the spread. In a long evidence session before the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, the whole issue of testing came up repeatedly and we got at least a few new facts.

Dido Harding sounded more bullish than she has for a long time, pointing out that Test and Trace coped well with the Christmas surge in cases with capacity to spare, saying its national structure meant it was able to handle the new cases in a way local teams simply couldn’t on their own. Still, the turnaround times for PCR labs are well off the PM’s own 100% target (set for last June) for in-person test results to be received within 24 hours.

Harding was pretty cautious about when schools could reopen, stating only that the pilots for rapid, daily testing that had been running since the autumn had to be updated to cope with the new variant of Covid. But asymptomatic, rapid testing is Test and Trace’s biggest new challenge, with more than 100 companies (she revealed the list now includes John Lewis as well as food manufacturers like Moy Park) trialling schemes where staff who test negative can come into work.

What struck me most was the sheer scale, in numbers and cost, of the mass testing programme planned. “Hundreds of millions” of lateral flow tests have been ordered, Harding said, and DHSC expects to spend a whopping £15bn in just four months on testing. MPs were told that 90% of the massive £22bn budget would go on testing, not tracing. And the bulk of the new tests would be lateral flow tests, because PCR capacity. Moreover, 30 of 207 new contracts awarded since November had been done without competitive tender, and most were for mass testing.

Perhaps the most eye-catching revelation of the session came when DHSC second permanent secretary David Williams revealed almost casually that 900 staff from consultants Deloitte are working for Test and Trace, at an average cost of £1,000 a day. That’s nearly a cool one million quid every day being paid out to a private consultancy. Just why NHS staff or civil servants can’t now provide that service remains a mystery to several MPs, including committee chair Meg Hillier.

I’d be surprised if the £900k-a day-to-Deloitte-alone cost is not raised by Keir Starmer in PMQs this week, given his own emphasis on government failures to give taxpayers value for money in the pandemic. This fits with Anneliese Dodds’ wider pledge last week that the NAO would do an annual audit of a Labour government’s spending (perhaps to reassure the public about her more radical fiscal rule suggestions of only balancing the books over a 20 year period but that’s another story).

Rapid testing may prove a more valuable tool than some government critics assume (I’m writing more about this later this week). Yet a government that is shelling out billions on rapid tests while still quibbling over financial support for people on universal credit is not a great look.‌

Rishi Sunak may want to shrug off Labour’s opposition day motion on extending the uplift, but he surely can’t wait for the Budget in March to come up with a solution. If the Whitehall chatter is right and Universal Credit is extended until July, that proves that Labour (even with a government that has a working majority of nearly 100) is punching above its weight.‌

Sunak’s more immediate challenge on covid however remains that problem of people not self-isolating because of money worries. Many low paid or self employed people are not covered by the £500 payment, and it’s still surprising that this many months into the pandemic there isn’t a simple like-for-like salary guarantee for all workers who do the right thing and quarantine.

Harding admitted financial worries (along with equally valid problems like food deliveries, childcare and the human need for fresh air) hampered the isolation rate that is so crucial to breaking the chain of transmission. A Treasury that is prepared to spend £15bn in four months on mass testing (eye-watering sums in any normal time) can surely look at better isolation and sick pay? If not it may feel like Wilde’s famous definition of a cynic, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Rapid testing, with people avoiding self isolation via negative tests, is one route. But paying out more to ensure every worker doesn’t lose out is another key incentive that seems long overdue. Decent isolation pay could even prove more cost effective than lateral flow tests in the long run. And as Mark Drakeford proved, focusing on systems rather than people can prove politically costly too.