Test and Trace fiasco

Public Accounts Committee investigate the failures of the government’s Test and Trace system

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— 4 minute read — By Derry Salter

A recent investigation by the House of Commons titled the Public Accounts Committee Report explores the fiasco that is the NHS Test and Trace service.

The United Kingdom went into nationwide lockdown in March 2020 following increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases. According to Boris Johnson, the country would have a “world-beating track and trace system”. However, the Prime Minister’s promise remains unfulfilled. The UK was not prepared to tackle the pandemic with the Test and Trace system launching two months into lockdown – long after infection rates passed their first peak.

The report concludes that there is no evidence that the government’s £22bn Test and Trace system helped to reduce COVID-19 infection rates. The committee challenged numerous MPs asking them to justify the “staggering investment of taxpayers’ money”. Instead of addressing the scheme’s weaknesses, the government merely threw more money at the issue. Last week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an additional £15bn would be added to the test and trace budget.

The report questions the government’s over-reliance on highly paid consultants and a failure to meet the surge of demands for tests. Moreover, the report states that despite the use of ‘unimaginable resources’, the system made ‘little measurable difference’ to combating the pandemic. With 90 percent of Test and Trace funding funnelled into the former aspect, the latter failed miserably with the government failing to locate others who had tested positive.

After Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty warned of a further surge in the coming months, the committee questioned the ministers plans to help the scheme ‘cost-effectively maintain a degree of readiness.’ The report reveals that some call handlers were only busy for 1 percent of their paid hours at the beginning of the scheme, rising to less than 50 percent during the second surge in October. Despite the scheme’s lack of success, Health Secretary Matt Hancock remains in support of the system, describing himself as “incredibly grateful” for the systems “amazing job”.

The main fiasco is the lack of trust between the government and its citizens. Contact tracers solely relied on names and numbers provided by those who tested positive; these contacts were often incorrect for privacy reasons or because the person did not want to self-isolate, consequently rendering the system ineffective.

However, defendant ministers criticised the report for failing to show the overall effectiveness of the system and the speed at which it works at. The government and Baroness Dido Harding, head of the scheme, denied all accusations, stating that the system, which was built from scratch, is constantly improving. She believes that the system ‘is making a real impact in breaking the chains of transmission.’

It is clear that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decisions engineered the UK’s poor handling of the global pandemic, with the country having one of the worst COVID-19 death rates and declining economies. Thirty countries are now coronavirus-free and another fifteen are close to this achievement. Without an effective Test and Trace scheme over a year into the pandemic, the UK is far from such a milestone.