If you search social media for “NHS Test and Trace” you’ll find not the latest figures on infections in the UK, nor Boris Johnson’s plan for dealing with them, but post after post of people imploring others to drop “NHS” from the name.
Instead, they claim the name – and the negative connotations that result when the system fails to reach its targets – should reflect the private companies that actually run most of the network.
Now a Commons committee has pulled the flagship system apart for failing to achieve its “main objective” to cut transmission rates and help the UK return to normal – even though it cost an “eye-watering” £37 billion of taxpayers’ money.
The system was set up by Tory peer and businesswoman Dido Harding in May 2020. It has received approximately 20% of the NHS’s entire annual budget across two years.
Prime minister Boris Johnson claimed it would be a “world-beating” system, but the spending watchdog report claims its aims have been “overstated or not achieved”.
“Everyone has NHS Test and Trace hoodies but none of them work for the NHS,” a test site worker employed by a private company who wished to remain anonymous told HuffPost UK last year.
“As far as I can tell, the whole thing is run by private companies as much as humanly possible.”
The ‘data processors’
Thirty-five organisations are listed as “data processors” involved in the NHS Test and Trace system but only four are NHS bodies. Four are Lighthouse Labs (see below).
A further four are Public Health England bodies and another is the Ministry of Defence.
The remaining 22 are private companies:
- ACF Technologies – provided software to enable you to book a test at a regional test site
- Amazon – provides logistics for home delivery of test kits, collecting completed test kits from homes and delivering them to labs
- Amazon Web Services (AWS) – provides digital solution for ordering home test kits
- AstraZeneca – analyses samples from the completed test kits
- Barcode warehouse – provides bar codes for test kits
- Boots – provides testers and test supervisors on regional test sites
- Deloitte – manages the registration and appointment booking, provides the capability for users to enter sample bar codes and responsible for holding data captured by the registration system and making it available to the NHS
- DHL – collects completed test kits from homes and delivers to labs
- EMIS Health – provides Keystone product to enable NPEx to link your test result to your GP record
- Experience Lab – provides user or market research for people who have undertaken tests
- G4S – provides facilities management for some regional test sites
- Jigsaw24 – provides mobile phones and SIMs for the mobile test units apps
- Kuenhe + Nagel – Collects completed test kits from homes and delivers to labs
- Levy – provides facilities management for some regional test sites
- Palantir – analyses anonymised data
- Randox – supplies home test kits, analyses the samples, informs you of the result of your Randox home test
- Royal Mail Group – collects completed test kits from homes and delivers to labs
- Serco -– provides facilities management for some regional test sites”
- ServerLabs – builds the “digital solution”
- Sodexo – provides testers on regional test sites, and facilities management for some regional test sites
- Teleperformance – provides call centre assistance
- TransUnion – provides identity verification checks as part of the registration process for a home test kit
The Lighthouse Labs
The Lighthouse Labs are “super labs” set up specifically to test for coronavirus and form a central part of the UK’s fight against the pandemic.
There are Lighthouse Lab sites in Glasgow, Milton Keynes and Alderley Park, Cheshire and the project is funded by the UK Government.
But while the overall responsibility for the system lies with the Department of Health, they are are managed through a partnership with the Medicines Discovery Catapult, UK Biocentre, the University of Glasgow, GSK, AstraZeneca, the University of Cambridge, and PerkinElmer.
Why does all this matter?
Johnson continues to refer to the “NHS Test and Trace” yet the irony is, when the NHS was actually in charge of the UK’s testing a diagnostic network, it was better perhaps better prepared to deal with a pandemic.
Dr Valerie Bevan, a retired microbiologist who helped manage Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS)-run labs in the ’90s, told HuffPost UK: “It wasn’t all perfect but there was a network of 52 laboratories and I think what would have happened is that testing could have been ramped up because there was good communication and trained scientists were already there.
“In the late 2000s a lot of labs were given over to the private sector, to companies like Serco who managed them. It meant they were independent from the NHS and had to cut costs and be profit-making which was a false economy.
“Had a network of laboratories been maintained and properly resourced, it would have kept pace with the changes that were happening, so if you had a big outbreak, it would have been prepared for it.”
Last year, leading doctors groups joined the revolt against the government’s handling of the crisis.
Following former health secretary Matt Hancock’s admission that tests for Covid-19 will have to be rationed amid a surge in cases, the British Medical Association told HuffPost UK “we don’t have a fit-for-purpose testing system”.
Deputy chair Dr David Wrigley, added: “NHS Test and Trace – despite its name – is not an NHS service, it’s a largely outsourced programme that sees numerous private companies given billions of pounds to run testing sites, process samples and manage contact tracing call centres.
“Despite billions changing hands, we don’t have a fit-for-purpose testing system. People can’t access tests, they’re not getting results in time, they’re having to isolate for days on end while waiting for results and we see contact tracers failing to reach enough people.”
Bevan said the solution lies in having a “fully funded system where all public health services including NHS and public health labs are fully integrated”.
She added: “I worry that we are heading for a two-tier system where the NHS deals with the routine diagnostic testing and the extraordinary is dealt with by the private sector.”
Downing Street’s response
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told HuffPost UK last year that allegations about the network’s failings were unfounded.
They claimed: “These claims are inaccurate and do not present a fair picture or reflect the huge amount of important work being carried out by our professional and dedicated teams. NHS Test and Trace is made up of public health experts from across the UK, including NHS staff.”
Following Wednesday’s scathing report from the Commons committee about the cost of Test and Trace, a government spokesperson said: “We have rightly drawn on the extensive expertise of a number of public and private sector partners who have been invaluable to us in helping us tackle the virus.”
They also defended the testing network by claiming it can still process more Covid tests per day than “any European country”.