U.K. Covid Test Program Cannot Justify Huge Costs, Lawmakers Say

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The U.K.’s coronavirus test-and-trace program has failed to demonstrate it has contributed to a fall in infection rates -- despite its “unimaginable” 22 billion-pound ($30.6 billion) cost so far, according to the British Parliament’s spending watchdog.

In a report Wednesday, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said there was “still no clear evidence” of the program’s overall effectiveness and it had failed to deliver on its “central promise” to prevent a second national lockdown in England -- or a third.

“British taxpayers cannot be treated by government like an ATM machine,” committee Chair Meg Hillier said in a statement. “Despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project, test-and-trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic.”

England is currently more than two months into its third lockdown after a surge in cases and hospitalizations over the winter, and schools have only just reopened after closing their doors at the start of the year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is relying on an effective test-and-trace system, alongside an ambitious vaccination roll-out, to allow him to gradually open more sectors of the economy in the coming months.

He is facing demands from some of his own members of Parliament to act faster. But Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, warned Tuesday that unlocking too quickly would lead to a fresh surge in infections. “A lot of people may think this is all over,” Whitty said. “It is very easy to forget how quickly things can turn bad.”

‘Epic Waste’

The test-and-trace program, run by Dido Harding, is due to receive another 15 billion-pounds in the next financial year -- taking the total bill to 37 billion-pounds in two years. It has long faced criticism for failing to deliver on key metrics, including rapid test turnaround times and tracing people who have been in close contact with a confirmed case.

In a statement, Harding said: “Protecting communities and saving lives is always our first priority and every pound spent is contributing towards our efforts to keep people safe, with 80% of NHS Test and Trace’s budget spent on buying and carrying out coronavirus tests.”

She said the program had carried out over 83 million tests and successfully reached 93.6% of the contacts of positive cases.

The PAC, a cross-party group of MPs, acknowledged that daily U.K. testing capacity had increased from around 100,000 last May to over 800,000 in January. But less than two thirds of laboratory capacity was used in November and December, it said.

The committee also raised fears about the test-and-trace program’s “persistent reliance” on consultants and temporary staff, who cost an average of 1,100 pounds each per day, with the highest paid 6,624 pounds a day.

Rachel Reeves, a spokeswoman for the opposition Labour party, said the system had led to “epic amounts of waste and incompetence,” and called for contact tracing to be run by local public health teams.

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