The government’s test-and-trace programme to combat Covid-19 has repeatedly failed to meet targets for delivering test results and contacting infected people despite costs escalating to £22bn, a damning official report has revealed.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has found that the centralised programme is contacting two out of every three people who have been close to someone who has tested positive, with about 40% of test results delivered within 24 hours, well below the government’s targets.
The report said a target to provide results within 24 hours of in-person testing deteriorated to a low of 14% in mid-October before rising to 38% in early November.
By 17 June, the utilisation rate – the proportion of time that someone actively worked during their paid hours – was 4% for health professionals and 1% for call handler staff, the report shows.
Utilisation rates remained well below a target of 50% throughout September and for much of October. This means substantial public resources have been spent on staff who provided minimal services in return.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, told the Guardian that the report has uncovered a gaping hole in the UK’s defences against the disease.
“The £22bn test and trace now has a budget larger than policing and fire service combined, has seen multimillion pound contracts handed to big private outsourcing firms rather than mobilise experienced public health expertise, and failed to trace sufficient numbers of contacts or ensure those who are contacted have decent financial support to isolate,” he said.
The study from Whitehall’s spending watchdog found that up to the end of October, the scheme spent £2bn less than forecast due to underspending on laboratories, machines and mass testing. Of the £15bn of funding confirmed before the November Spending Review, about £12.8bn (85%) was assigned to testing and £1.3bn to tracing.
In total, 70% of early contracts by value were directly awarded without competition under emergency measures, the report said.
Dido Harding, head of the NHS test-and-trace programme, which plans to spend a further £16.2bn on contracts by 2021. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Contracts worth £7bn have been signed with 217 public and private organisations to provide supplies, services and infrastructure, including test laboratories and call handlers for tracing. NHS test and trace (NHST&T) has plans to sign a further 154 contracts, worth £16.2bn, by March 2021.
A target to provide results within 24 hours of in-person testing in the community has not been met, auditors found. The report said that turnaround within 24 hours peaked in June at 93% but subsequently deteriorated to reach a low of 14% in mid-October before rebounding to 38% in early November.
Auditors found that while the government had “rapidly scaled up” the operation from a low base, at times “parts of the tracing service have barely been used”.
The report said: “In May, Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) signed contracts for the provision of 3,000 health professionals and 18,000 call handlers. The call handler contracts were worth up to £720m .
“By 17 June, the utilisation rate (the proportion of time that someone actively worked during their paid hours) was low for both health professional (4%) and call handler staff (1%), indicating that they had little work to do.
“DHSC had no flexibility to reduce the number of call handlers under the original contracts, which ran for three months.
“It negotiated new terms in August and reduced the number of these staff to 12,000, but utilisation rates remained well below a target of 50% throughout September and for much of October. This means substantial public resources have been spent on staff who provided minimal services in return.”
The report found that NHST&T did not plan for the sharp rise in testing demand in September when schools and universities reopened. As a result, laboratories processing community swab tests were unable to keep pace with the volume and experienced large backlogs, which meant NHST&T had to limit the number of tests available.
A DHSC spokesperson said turnaround times had been steadily improving over recent weeks, and the latest performance figures showed that tracing had dramatically improved, now reaching 85.7% of contacts.
“As the Covid-19 vaccination programme is rolled out, we are determined to ensure that NHS test and trace plays an even more effective role in stopping the spread of the virus.”
Yet again, Larry and Paul have captured the essence of a Downing Street briefing, with a sketch that contains as few facts as the real one, but – unlike most government updates – is absolutely unmissable.
Lawyers for the FDA union sent a pre-action notice to Downing Street on Wednesday accusing the prime minister of acting unlawfully when he chose to stand by his home secretary and overrule his independent adviser.
The letter, first reported in the Times, accuses Johnson of “setting a damaging precedent which gives carte blanche to the kind of unacceptable conduct which the home secretary was found to have committed”.
The union hopes the letter is the first step towards a judicial review of Johnson’s decision. The government has so far refused to make public the full Cabinet Office investigation led by Sir Alex Allan, which concluded that Patel’s actions amounted to bullying.
The government is expected to fight any legal challenge against Johnson’s decision.
The move comes after Jonathan Evans, the chair of the committee for standards in public life, launched a review of probity rules, which will include the ministerial code.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, told the Guardian: “The prime minister’s decision has laid bare the inadequacies of the ministerial code as a mechanism for dealing with the conduct of ministers when it comes to their civil servants. The code provides no commitments or rights to the civil servants who were bullied by the home secretary nor any mechanism for challenge.
“Unless this perverse decision by the prime minister, ignoring the evidence provided to him, can be challenged in the courts, it essentially deprives civil servants of the very protection against ministerial misconduct which the code is meant to ensure.”
Allan resigned last month after Johnson reportedly tried to persuade him to tone down the report.
Overruling his adviser on ministerial standards, Johnson acknowledged that while Allan had concluded Patel’s behaviour could “on occasion” be described “as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals”, he had “full confidence” in the cabinet minister.
The legal letter sent on Wednesday states: “Civil servants in the Home Office and beyond will rightly object to their conduct being measured against a standard of conduct and unacceptable bullying which, it seems, does not apply to the home secretary or other ministers.”
Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit as the department’s permanent secretary after accusing Patel of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him, is taking the home secretary to an employment tribunal in September.
He claims he was forced out following anonymous briefings after blowing the whistle on her behaviour. Patel denies all allegations against her.
Darryn Allcorn, Chief Nurse at the Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, told Thursday’s Team Devon Local Outbreak Engagement Board meeting that two sites have been secured in the county to deliver vaccines en masse to the population early in 2021.
One site will be in Plymouth – the exact location to be announced next week once contracts are signed, he said.
The second will be in Exeter, and agreement from NHS England for the location has been reached, so further conversations with the site owner are now taking place.
Vaccinations in the county have begun after Derriford Hospital received 975 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, with Mr Allcorn saying that 55 people were vaccinated on Tuesday along with 90 on Wednesday.
Another 830 vaccinations are set to be carried out by midday on Saturday, after which the next batch will be delivered.
What other sites will be giving the vaccine – and when?
He stated that on Friday, the first eight primary care sites in Devon to receive the vaccine would be announced, with each of them to receive 975 doses of the vaccine, with vaccinations to begin on December 14 and 15, with a further 21 sites to become active in the New Year, if not beforehand.
On the large-scale mass vaccination sites, Mr Allcorn said that one would be in Plymouth and one in Exeter, and they hoped to confirm publically the locations next week, with the sites more likely to be administering the Oxford vaccine, which does not need to be stored at -70C like the Pfizer jab does, if and when it is approved for use.
Cllr Andrew Leadbetter, vice-chairman of the Board, asked what the plans were for the Northern part of Devon, if the mass vaccination centre were in the south of the county.
Mr Allcorn said: “We will be working with primary care teams to have a model where we can bring a slightly larger site to North Devon. The challenge is the geographical isolation, so once we can transport it, we will go to the flu vaccine model and deliver it to people as close as possible to their home, and the Northern teams up for that model.”
Dr Paul Johnson, chair of the Devon CCG, added: “The vaccination programme is up and running and given the numbers of over 80s who are getting Covid-19 and that they are the highest risk group so targeting them is the right priority.”
What’s the Covid infection rate now?
The Board heard that Devon had seen a decline in the number of coronavirus cases confirmed over recent weeks, but that decline had stared to slow down and stabilise.
Simon Chant, Public Health Specialist, said that the latest infection rate for the county was 75.7 per 100,000, half the English average, but the rate for Devon was now higher than both Plymouth (46.5) and Torbay (36.7), areas that had seen a higher peak but a much faster drop.
Mr Chant said that the county was seeing a gradual increase cases being confirmed in the 80+ age group, which was seen by outbreaks in care home and hospital settings, and that was skewed to those 90+, but the infection rates were starting to stabilise and were decreasing, while the 0-19 age range had the lowest current infection rates.
Across the county, East Devon and West Devon were the areas with the highest current infection rates based on the seven-day rolling average covering the period of specimens between December 1 and 7, with South Hams and Teignbridge the lowest.
Dr Phil Norrey, Devon County Council’s chief executive, confirmed that the decision will be taken by Government on what happens in terms of the Tier system on December 16, with it being announced on December 17.
He added: “We will know next Thursday whether Devon continues in Tier 2 or moves up or down. It is extremely unlikely to move up, but we have no idea if it will move down.”
Dr Norrey added: “The vaccinations news is not a signal for people to lower their guard and the virus will remain in the community for months to come.”
Cllr James McInnes, cabinet member for children’s services, added: “I am starting to worry about people lowering their guard because the vaccine is coming. We need to incorporate the message to people to welcome the vaccine but also to keep yourself well so you will actually be able to take the vaccine.”
A new report has revealed the risks that Cornwall faces as a result of Brexit included major hits to agriculture and fishing industries.
Author: Richard Whitehouse, Local Democracy Reporter Published 9th Dec 2020 planetradio.co.uk
The document, written by Cornwall Council leader Julian German, is set to go before the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board when it meets on Friday (Dec11).
With the EU transition period set to end on December 31 the nine-page report sets out what the impact of changes could be and the risks they pose to Cornwall.
Cornwall Council has an EU transition working group which has been meeting fortnightly to assess the risks and what might need to be done to mitigate those risks.
On trade with the EU the report states:
“The changes to the way the UK trades with the EU will have an impact on Cornwall’s businesses and the wider economy. Cornwall’s trade with the EU is higher than the UK average, with 55% of Cornish exports going to the EU and 47% of its imports coming from the EU.
“This equates to a slight trade surplus with £364m in exports v £325m in imports. However, less businesses export to the EU (1,127), than those who import (1,832), with approximately 5% of Cornish businesses exporting to the EU.”
The report highlights that, at the time of writing, it is unclear whether there will be a trade deal in place by December 31 but says whatever happens there will have to be new processes for imports and exports.
There are also concerns about the impact on the wider economy with the Government forecasting that GDP will be 4% lower than if the UK remained in the EU.
The report states:
“Cornwall’s economy is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the EU exit due to the average low wage, and importance of the tourism, food, fish and agriculture sectors. This could be compounded with the impact of COVID-19 which is likely to see a greater contraction than the 2010 financial crash.
“In order to mitigate this impact Cornwall Council have been working with partners to provide support for our different sectors and businesses and seeking assurances from government on a number of key areas.”
With Cornwall having received a large amount of EU funding due to its status as being one of the poorest areas in Europe there are also concerns about whether that funding will be replaced by the Government and how.
While the Prime Minister has promised that Cornwall will not miss out there have been few details about the replacement funding and how it will be administered.
Cornwall Council has submitted a bid to the Government for £700million of funding to be provided over the next 10 years to fill the gap left by the loss of EU funding.
The report states:
“The Government have previously pledged that the replacement UK Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) would see no region worse off. However, there is a possibility that replacement funds could use different metrics which could see Northern/urban areas benefit over Cornwall. This presents a significant risk that the “no worse off” commitment may not be delivered as it relates to more than the value of the fund.
“The local devolution of decision making, simpler process, outcome delivery and a 10-year delivery period that Cornwall Council are calling for are also at risk.”
Concerns about the impact on seasonal labour and workforce are also highlighted in the report which states that the agriculture sector is dependent on seasonal workers.
It states that the brassica sector is worth £200m a year to Cornwall and the daffodil sector is worth £100m a year to Cornwall but less than 5% of those working in fields are UK residents.
The report says that it is still “urgently seeking” an extension to the Government’s seasonal agricultural workers scheme into 2021 and beyond and for it to cover non-food crops such as daffodils and bulbs.
“With non-food crop production (including daffodils) not covered by the current SAWS scheme, and the imminent closure of the SAWS pilot scheme at the end of December 2020, Cornish farming businesses are very concerned.
“It appears that seasonal labour is being caught up in Government policies relating to immigration rather than being treated separately. Due to the current immigration policy focusing on skills – defined as qualifications – field operatives are not considered for visas. The industry estimates 70,000 workers are needed nationally each year.”
The report adds:
“Cornwall Council have been raising this issue to the Treasury and Home Office and have been told that it is an issue that the Government have sight of and that options are under consideration. However, we have been advised that a ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign will be an important focus regardless of what is decided.”
And it continues:
“At a time when Cornwall and the UK are facing the unprecedented challenges that Covid-19 has had on our economy, the potential loss of these businesses would impact the national Exchequer as well as the local Cornish economy. Our daffodil industry alone contributes £20m a year of VAT.”
Turning to fisheries the report raises concerns about how export restrictions will impact live bivalve molluscs (LBM) and set to run from January to April.
It says that this would “significantly impact” the Fal Fishery and the export of mussels, oysters and queen scallops to the EU – the first sale value of queen scallops for the 2019/20 season was around £256,000.
The report states:
“If the anticipated restrictions stand, the fishery will cease to operate due to the complete loss of the market. The fishery currently supports 30 licence holders, a further 42 registered crew and ancillary businesses.
“This issue is due to a change in regulations which will mean that it will only be possible to export LBM to the EU that have come from A grade shellfish harvest areas or have been appropriately purified. As these products are deemed fit for direct human consumption and classified as a food product, they can be exported alongside an export health certificate.
“However, LMB from B grade shellfish harvest areas are considered live animal exports and cannot be exported without a Live Animal Health Certificate (LAHC) which is not due to be made available by the EU until April 2021.”
The report is set to go to the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board when it meets on Friday (Dec11). The board will be asked to review the risks and consider mitigation methods which could be implemented.
The board will also be asked to write an open letter to EU residents in Cornwall reminding them to apply for settled status by June 30, 2021 and that it continues to raise the need for the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to be extended and include non-food crops.
Letters have been sent accusing people on low incomes of “deliberately” choosing not to pay taxes. They are warned that officials “can take money directly from your bank or business society accounts”.
While much of the country has benefited from billions in financial aid, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has tried to collect debts by sending agents to visit people.
The enforcement tactics, which have included the use of eight private debt collection companies, have been condemned for causing “distress” and “emotional trauma”. In some cases, however, the arrears are the result of HMRC errors.
After being contacted by this newspaper, the department apologised last night for about 800 letters it had sent during the pandemic accusing people of deliberately not repaying debts.
It said that the content “was a mistake and does not reflect our current approach to debt collection”. It did not apologise for threatening repossessions and a spokesman said this was “a pretty standard line” that “we often use”.
An investigation by The Times also found that:
• HMRC has passed on 4.5 million personal records to private debt collectors since 2014 without taxpayers’ specific consent and they are incentivised to maximise takings.
• The debt-collection companies use the pandemic as a means of pressing people to pay, writing that “Covid-19 has damaged the economy” and tax is needed “to fund the NHS”.
• Cancer patients and care home staff are among those who have been chased by debt collectors working with the government department.
• A vulnerable man whose local authority passed details of his council tax debt to collectors tried to commit suicide last month after suffering anxiety over mounting debts.
• The department refused to disclose the number of cases it had passed to debt collectors during the pandemic, despite the release of equivalent figures for the previous six years.
HMRC uses private companies to chase tax debts relating to issues such as credit overpayments and miscalculations on self-assessments.
People on low incomes who are eligible for tax credits can be overpaid for many months without realising and then face repayment demands for thousands of pounds, which they cannot afford. Others owe money relating to freelance work for the previous tax year but cannot pay because of loss of earnings during the pandemic.
The debts in cases seen by this newspaper range from £66 to more than £10,000. In recent months, several of the debt collection companies have written to families struggling to pay.
They all used the same wording: “Covid-19 (Coronavirus) has damaged the UK economy, which means more than ever it is important that tax debts are collected to help it recover. These are also needed to continue to fund vital public services like the NHS.”
They can contact taxpayers by letter, text message and phone. If there is no response or they do not pay the cases are handed back to HMRC.
In October, the taxman wrote directly to Richard Hull, 59, a carpenter who has been unable to settle a tax bill of £9,733 because he and his wife, a care home worker, were ill with the virus in April and most of his customers cancelled or delayed work.
Mr Hull had tried to respond to other letters from one of the debt collection firms but was unable to get through on the phone. While furloughed workers have had 80 per cent of their wages covered, many self-employed people, including Mr Hull, have not qualified for government help. This is often because they are newly self-employed or directors of limited companies.
The letter to Mr Hull from HMRC stated: “If you still don’t pay, we’ll now treat you like you’ve deliberately chosen not to . . . We can take things you own and sell them and we charge you fees for doing this. If you don’t act now it could cost you more money. Alternatively, in certain circumstances we can take money directly from your bank or building society accounts.”
HMRC did not respond to requests for the number of letters threatening repossessions it has sent since April.
In the 2019/20 financial year, HMRC gave 1.1 million cases to private debt collectors — more than double the number five years earlier. HMRC refused to disclose the number of cases handed to debt collectors since the pandemic struck in April, claiming this is “commercially sensitive information”. Taxpayers have made more than 1,400 complaints about the companies to the department since 2014. Over the past decade HMRC has spent at least £179 million on debt collection services.
The department also employs an internal team of 285 “field force collectors” who visit people at home or at business premises. They have made 2.4 million visits since 2014, with 1,091 of them made during the pandemic.
These have been only to business addresses. HMRC said they were not to list or collect assets but to “offer support”. Local authorities also use private companies to chase council tax debts and have continued to do so this year.
Rushanara Ali, a Labour MP on the Treasury select committee, called for a review of public services’ use of debt collection agencies and aggressive practices. “We all recognise the need to recover taxes but in the middle of the pandemic there needs to be greater sensitivity so that it doesn’t become counter-productive,” she said.
StepChange, the largest debt advice charity in Britain, said government debt collection practices were more aggressive than those in other sectors.
Peter Tutton, head of policy, said: “At a time when so many people are struggling due to coronavirus, outdated and harmful approaches to debt collection cannot be allowed to continue.”
The debt collection agencies said they were regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and trained to identify and help vulnerable customers. They said they have offered additional support during the pandemic, including changes to repayment terms.
HMRC said that repossession “is only mentioned in a letter after we have already made several attempts to contact a customer”. Less than 1 per cent of field force collector cases lead to goods being removed.
HMRC stopped debt collection activities in March but contacted a million people with tax debts built up before the pandemic when restrictions were lifted in some areas.
A spokesman said that contact initially focused on working with people to help them find an affordable way forward and that “strongly worded communications only go out as a last resort”.
Private firms are awarded commission to hunt debts
Private companies chasing struggling families for tax debts are given incentives by the government to maximise the amount of money they collect.
They are reimbursed using a “payment by results” model, according to a contract for the work seen by The Times. If people who owe taxes pay HMRC after being chased by a debt collection agency, “it will be able to claim commission on these payments” up to a cap, it states.
In some cases the agencies amend debt balances to add interest and penalties when instructed to do so by the Revenue. Although the contract, which runs for seven years from 2015, offers basic information about the arrangements, details about amounts paid, how the commission is calculated, at what level payments are capped and extra penalties have been redacted to protect “commercial interests”.
HMRC outsources the collection of arrears to Integrated Debt Services, also known as Indesser, which is a private company majority owned by TDX Group. TDX Group is owned by Equifax, the consumer credit reporting agency headquartered in the US Indesser then sub-contracts the work to eight debt collection agencies.
In 2019 HMRC spent £25.4 million on debt collection services, according to figures compiled by the accountants UHY Hacker Young. Over the past decade it paid at least £179 million to debt collectors. The companies can try to contact people by letter, text messages and calls and if they do not respond or they cannot pay the cases are handed back to HMRC. The contract states that scripts — for instance for the letters and text messages — are approved by a government department. If the department decides a type of debt should not be collected on a “payment by results” basis, the contract allows different payment models to be used.
For instance, it offers a “platinum” package that allows a set fee to be paid in return for a debt agency sending three letters, making five calls and sending five text messages.
Indesser has collected more than £1.7 billion in public sector debt for 17 government bodies since its inception in 2015, according to its annual report for 2019. Its highest paid director earned £277,000 in 2018.
Indesser and HMRC declined to provide more details about the amounts paid in commission. Indesser said debt collection agencies were subject to “extensive due diligence” before approval by HMRC. It said all correspondence with the public had been updated in light of the pandemic “to acknowledge the impact on lives and finances across the country” and that people were allowed extra time to repay. It only added penalties or interest to bills if instructed to do so by a government department, at no financial benefit.
HMRC said that the law allowed it to delegate work to private sector suppliers. It said that safeguards were in place to ensure that they were monitored and complied with rules and that it had a “robust complaints process” and “will always work to rectify any mistakes”.
Ministers want to overhaul the planning system, which they say is necessary to boost the building of high-quality, sustainable homes, by streamlining the process, cutting red tape and harnessing technology.
Proposals include speeding up the creation of local plans by communities and creating zones for growth, renewal or protection, with development in growth areas pre-approved as long as it meets local design standards.
The proposals are also aimed at much quicker development in renewal areas, replace the planning process with a clearer, rules-based system, and protect green spaces by allowing for more building on brownfield land.
But councillors have said the plans will undermine local democracy by removing the public’s right to be heard in person at local plan examinations and taking away development decisions from elected planning committees.
They said the zoning system could radically reduce protections for nature, local green spaces and fail to tackle the climate crisis, and put additional pressure on greenfield sites.
The proposals would also weaken provisions for affordable, sustainable, good-quality homes, the open letter warns.
The letter states: “The right development, in the right place has the potential to deliver social equity and sustainable economic growth, as well as meeting our environmental ambitions. The government’s proposals as they stand will not achieve these goals.”
Crispin Truman, the chief executive of the countryside charity CPRE, which has hosted the letter alongside Friends of the Earth, said it was not too late for the government to rethink its changes to the planning system.
“Planning done well can create the affordable and well-designed homes that communities are crying out for,” he said. “We can create low-carbon and nature-friendly homes, with an abundance of green space on their doorsteps, all connected by low-carbon public transport.
“Investing in a locally led democratic planning system, that empowers local councils to create these places, should be the government’s top priority.”
Naomi Luhde-Thompson, a senior planner at Friends of the Earth, added: “It’s clear to so many MPs, councillors and local communities that the prime minister’s vision for decision-making on development in England is not one that guarantees local control and centres local voices.”
She said the proposals would “drown out community voices, stifle local democratic responsibility, and weaken legal protections for the environment”.
James Jamieson, the chairman of the Local Government Association, said councils were committed to ensuring new homes were built and communities had quality places to live.
He said: “It is vital that these are delivered through a locally-led planning system which gives communities the power to ensure new developments are of a high standard, built in the right places, and include affordable homes.”
He said nine in 10 applications were approved by councils and that more than a million homes given planning permission over the last decade were yet to be built.
“Any loss of local control over developments would be a concern,” he warned. “It would deprive communities of the ability to define the area they live in and know best and risk giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local areas.
“If we are to truly fix our chronic housing shortage, councils need the tools, powers and flexibilities to plan for and deliver the quality homes and places communities need.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the concerns were unfounded and “demonstrate a misunderstanding of our proposals”.
They added: “Our reforms to the planning system will protect our cherished countryside and green spaces for generations to come. The proposals will put local democracy at the heart of the planning process, enabling green belt decisions to remain with councils and giving communities real influence over development location and design.”