UK government faces legal action over ‘moonshot’ Covid testing project

The UK government is facing legal action over Boris Johnson’s “moonshot” project, which could involve up to £100bn being spent on an attempt to increase Covid-19 testing capacity to 10m per day.

Robert Booth

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, and the minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, are named in a case that alleges the project, as described in leaked papers, is unlawful because it ignores scientific evidence, involves potentially huge private contracts that may not have been tendered and breaks the government’s own value-for-money rules.

The project has been widely criticised as a misdirected effort when between 3 and 9 September, only 571,400 people were tested for infection in England in NHS and community settings, according to official figures. Community testing has been getting slower, with the median time taken to get a result at local test sites increasing from 24 hours to 35 hours.

Supporters of the project say it is the kind of ambitious thinking required to enable life to return to normal until an effective vaccine can be rolled out.

The legal action is the latest in a series of challenges aimed at government handling of the Covid crisis by the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit membership body that has issued proceedings about the award of contracts for personal protective equipment.

Now it wants a judicial review of the moonshot plan, alleging the government should have consulted the National Screening Committee, which advises on mass testing and screening programmes, and that the possibility of the programme generating large numbers of false positives risks “personal and economic harm to tens of thousands of people”. It claims that private contracts should be publicly tendered.

Leaked documents obtained by the British Medical Journal and the Guardian showed that the accountancy firm Deloitte had been identified as a key partner in the project, alongside potential partners including G4S, Serco, Boots, Sainsbury’s, AstraZeneca, GSK and Smith and Nephew. The project promises “a huge new operational infrastructure” with testing available in pharmacies, schools and workplaces as well as health settings.

A pre-action letter sent to the government’s lawyers cites concerns that ministers are effectively “punting unprecedented sums of public money on technology that does not exist”.

It states: “As far as we are aware, no public consultation has been undertaken in respect of this decision to approve and commit £100bn of public money to Project Moonshot and no documents recording the decision-making process leading to the decision have been published by the defendants, or otherwise released into the public domain. At present, it is unclear (and there is no transparency) as to what considerations and evidence have, or have not, been taken into account by the defendants in making the decision(s)”

The action could flush out government papers about decision-making around moonshot, HM Treasury’s involvement in approving plans for the spend and how far the companies said to be involved initiated proposals for contracts.

Maugham said: “This is a staggering sum of money – a generational-sized millstone of debt. Yet we know nothing about who has made the decision to spend it, or with what safeguards, or with whom, or why with them. There is the sense about it all [being] a bet made at the whim of a single unelected Svengali.

“What we do know is that all the experts – Sage, the Royal Statistical Society, the National Screening Committee, the World Health Organization, all of them – have grave concerns about whether it is the right thing to do.”

The Department of Heath and Social Care and the Cabinet Office have been contacted for comment.