Private firm Deloitte is receiving taxpayer cash to help ministers to draft parliamentary answers and media “lines to take” to defend the Test and Trace programme, HuffPost UK can reveal.
The unprecedented role for the consultancy giant is part of a series of contracts worth £323m to “support” the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the National Testing Programme run by Baroness Dido Harding’s service.
Four different contracts show that Test and Trace has been using Deloitte for “general management consultancy services” ranging from building testing capacity to stockpiling and logistics oversight.
But buried within the contracts are details of help provided with PR and communications, with a requirement to “draft and respond to parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information requests, media queries and other reactive requests” and to “support lines to take and Q&A’s in anticipation of queries”.
Traditionally Whitehall civil servants draft answers to parliamentary questions from MPs, as well as statutory Freedom of Information requests.
Similarly, “lines to take” – often a defensive reaction to criticism of a particular policy – are normally drafted within government by officials.
Critics claimed that Deloitte could be “marking its own homework” when MPs asked questions about Test and Trace.
Labour said the contracts laid bare ministers’ spending priorities and the top civil service union warned of potential conflicts of interest and the undermining of officials.
Appearing before MPs on Wednesday, Boris Johnson defended the £37bn allocated to Test and Trace claiming it was “a very valuable thing” that enabled ministers to understand the pandemic in a “very granular way”.
But the service has been dogged with criticism, with the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee highlighting its use of outsourced private firms, consultants being paid £1,000 a day and poor performance on contact tracing and testing turnaround times.
Earlier this year, Harding defended the use of consultants needed to build the testing programme from scratch last May, claiming that their use would be phased out and their skills transferred to civil servants in coming months.
Government documents show that Deloitte has been awarded four different contracts worth £323m since the start of the pandemic. The most recent is for £122m, and runs from February this year until September.
Two of the contracts have a clause that specifies a role for the firm in “communications” on so-called Pillar 4 of the testing programme, which covers blood and swab testing for national surveillance on the prevalence and spread of the virus, as well as the accuracy of home testing.
Several MPs, from Labour’s Stella Creasy to the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, have submitted questions on Deloitte’s role in the testing programme.
Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project, told HuffPost UK: “We have a government so addicted to outsourcing that it has even outsourced being held to account.
“If a member of the public submits an FOI request, or an MP asks a parliamentary question about the government spending millions on contracts with Deloitte, it seems that it’s Deloitte at the other end marking its own homework – it is beyond parody.
“Does anyone know where the Department for Deloitte ends and the Department for Health begins?”
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “When we are told the government can only afford a 1% pay rise for NHS staff the news that the Department for Health are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on private sector consultants to do work the department should be doing anyway will confirm to many just how out of touch this government is.
“There is no doubt the department has struggled in the last year but there can be no justification for what amounts to a part privatisation of the civil service. It also raises massive questions about conflicts of interest and a clear blurring of the lines between impartial civil service advice which should be paid for by the taxpayer and political activities which shouldn’t be.
“The taxpayer is footing a £300m bill for services that appear to include advice on how to ‘spin’ the media on the work of Test and Trace. No amount of cash can spin that failure into a success.”
Dave Penman, general secretary of the First Division Association that represents civil servants, said it was sometimes justifiable to bring in outside expertise in an emergency – but not if that meant effectively replacing officials with more expensive and less accountable alternatives.
“Civil servants will tell you that consultants can provide invaluable expertise and often work closely to transfer their expertise in a particular field,” he said.
“However, there are many areas where the civil service has unique insight and expertise, including support for ministers, parliamentary procedures and freedom of information.
“An impartial and permanent civil service also has a critical role in providing ministers with their best evidence-based advice, speaking truth unto power. This makes for better decision making and more effective government and is why civil servants are recruited for what they can do, not what they believe.
“Extending the role of consultants into work that could and, indeed, should be done by civil servants is not only hugely expensive, it undermines the efficiency of government over the longer term.
“It is extraordinary that, on the one hand, Lord Agnew, the Cabinet Office minister, has accused Whitehall of being ‘infantilised’ by an ‘unacceptable’ reliance on expensive management consultants, when, on the other, Matt Hancock is choosing to pay those very same expensive management consultants to do jobs that civil servants can and should be doing.”
Harding will hand over the running of Test and Trace next month to a brand new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), led by deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, who will be its chief executive.
UKHSA will bring together Public Health England (PHE), NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) under one public body.
The Department of Health and Deloitte have been approached for a comment but have failed to respond.
UPDATE: Hours after HuffPost UK published this story, the government came back with a response.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Setting up the largest diagnostics network in UK history, from scratch, was an unprecedented challenge that necessitated a dynamic public-private partnership that could work together in the national fight against Covid-19.
“Over 115 million tests have been conducted in the UK in total since testing began, which is more than any other comparable European country.
“The government employs contractors in the same vein that private businesses do and responsibility for answering parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and media enquiries rests firmly with a team of civil service communications professionals within the Department of Health and Social Care. Every single response is subject to the highest levels of scrutiny to ensure they are both factual and detailed.”