Boris Johnson’s controversial Test and Trace service is to get another £15bn in government cash, the small print of the Budget has confirmed.
The funding for 2021/22 comes on top of this year’s spending allocation of £22bn, taking the total bill for the controversial service to a huge £37bn over two years.
MPs said that the “eye-watering” sums should prompt ministers to do more to prove that the system, run by Tory peer Dido Harding, was giving taxpayers real value for money.
The figures emerged as the government revealed it was offering NHS staff just a 1% pay rise in the coming year, a move described by the nurses’ union as “pitiful”.
Test and Trace merits just a few lines in the Budget Red Book, but it confirms that cash allocated in the 2020 Spending Review will deliver “a further £15 billion next year”, on top of £22bn this financial year to March 31.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak last year gradually hiked the money given to Test and Trace, adding an extra £7bn on top of its original £15bn earmarked for 2020/21.
The new £15bn will come from a special £55bn “Covid reserve” for 2021/22. Just £700 million of the Covid reserve is going to “catch-up” teaching for schools, while £1.6bn will go on vaccine procurement next year.
The Budget also revealed that just £20m a month is being allocated for a discretionary fund to help councils support people who can’t afford to self isolate with Covid.
Test and Trace has been dogged by criticism since its launch last April, with critics seizing on its use of private consultants at £1,000-a-day, its outsourcing to firms like Serco and its failure to deliver contact tracing rates or rapid test turnaround times seen as vital to stop the spread of Covid.
The National Audit Office published an interim report on Test and Trace last November which concluded that the government “needs to learn lessons” and that the service “is able to make a bigger contribution to suppressing the infection than it has to date”.
Sage scientists concluded last year that it was having a “marginal impact” on the pandemic.
Test and Trace’s own modelling shows that 90% of its claimed cut in transmission comes from people who isolate as soon as they get symptoms – even before coming into contact with the service.
The system’s performance on test turnaround times and contact tracing has however markedly improved in recent weeks, as the third wave of the pandemic has receded and the impact of the vaccine rollout has been felt.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders told HuffPost UK: “With such a huge sum being set aside for Test and Trace you would hope that moving forward it will be performing better.
“But the fact that there are still multiple problems with its performance and the government have so far refused to publish their business case [claiming the service can prevent lockdowns] shows a worrying level of denial about tackling what will be a big part of the plan to return to normality.
“Ministers need to be honest with themselves and with the public about whether these huge sums of money are delivering what is needed. They need to give the public much greater reassurance that they are getting real value for money from the billions spent on Test and Trace”.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens pointed out earlier this year that despite its title, “NHS Test and Trace” was “run by the Department of Health and Social Care, rather than by the NHS or NHS England”.
Commons public accounts committee chair Meg Hillier said: “Matt Hancock massively oversold this, saying it was part of the NHS when it’s not. It’s costing a lot of money and it’s unclear whether it is having more than a marginal impact on the pandemic. And I think if you compare it with the vaccines, the order of magnitude of spending is massively different.
“If this is a permanent agency set-up we need to know what it’s going to look like when it starts delivering what is likely to be routine testing and tracing. Or is this £37bn is being spent on something that’s a temporary fix? Either way, the taxpayer deserves to know more about how effective it is, pound for pound.
“For the eye watering sums of money spent, even in the context of Covid, we need to know that this money isn’t just nugatory spending, that there is a legacy left as a result of this.”
Test and Trace faced fresh criticism on Thursday when Sky News revealed that its App had barely used all the check-in data from hundreds of millions of people who visited pubs, restaurants and hairdressers before lockdown.
Boris Johnson is a big defender of the Test and Trace system, not least as it is part of his “roadmap” plan to ease restrictions in coming months.
The roadmap stressed that the service works in partnership with Public Health England, local authorities, businesses, schools, universities and others, and now has capacity for approximately 800,000 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests per day.
Its rapid lateral flow tests, used for regular weekly testing of NHS and social care staff, now outnumber PCR tests conducted each week.
Latest figures showed that 2.2 million lateral flow device (LFD) tests for Covid-19 were conducted in England in the week to February 24. This is the fifth successive week in which more LFD tests were conducted than PCR tests.
“As the virus becomes less prevalent, the Test, Trace and Isolate system will become ever more important in identifying local outbreaks rapidly, allowing the government to take swift action to manage them and respond to new Variants of Concern,” the roadmap said.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “To build the largest diagnostic network in British history, the skills and expertise of both public and private sector partners were required and every pound spent is contributing towards our efforts to keep people safe - with the vast majority spent on buying and carrying out coronavirus tests.
“As the virus becomes less prevalent, the test, trace and isolate system will become ever more important in identifying local outbreaks rapidly, enabling local and national teams to take swift action to manage them and respond to new variants of concern. NHS Test and Trace system has had another strong reporting week with the service continuing to reach almost 90% of cases.”
Accounts for the service will be published in due course, the department said.