How Can A Government That Spends Billions On Mass Testing Quibble Over Helping The Low Paid?

“a government that is shelling out billions on rapid tests while still quibbling over financial support for people on universal credit is not a great look”

Paul Waugh [extract]

Given the lack of evidence so far about the impact of vaccination on transmission of the virus, it’s notable that mass testing is still a key weapon (alongside lockdown itself) in curbing the spread. In a long evidence session before the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, the whole issue of testing came up repeatedly and we got at least a few new facts.

Dido Harding sounded more bullish than she has for a long time, pointing out that Test and Trace coped well with the Christmas surge in cases with capacity to spare, saying its national structure meant it was able to handle the new cases in a way local teams simply couldn’t on their own. Still, the turnaround times for PCR labs are well off the PM’s own 100% target (set for last June) for in-person test results to be received within 24 hours.

Harding was pretty cautious about when schools could reopen, stating only that the pilots for rapid, daily testing that had been running since the autumn had to be updated to cope with the new variant of Covid. But asymptomatic, rapid testing is Test and Trace’s biggest new challenge, with more than 100 companies (she revealed the list now includes John Lewis as well as food manufacturers like Moy Park) trialling schemes where staff who test negative can come into work.

What struck me most was the sheer scale, in numbers and cost, of the mass testing programme planned. “Hundreds of millions” of lateral flow tests have been ordered, Harding said, and DHSC expects to spend a whopping £15bn in just four months on testing. MPs were told that 90% of the massive £22bn budget would go on testing, not tracing. And the bulk of the new tests would be lateral flow tests, because PCR capacity. Moreover, 30 of 207 new contracts awarded since November had been done without competitive tender, and most were for mass testing.

Perhaps the most eye-catching revelation of the session came when DHSC second permanent secretary David Williams revealed almost casually that 900 staff from consultants Deloitte are working for Test and Trace, at an average cost of £1,000 a day. That’s nearly a cool one million quid every day being paid out to a private consultancy. Just why NHS staff or civil servants can’t now provide that service remains a mystery to several MPs, including committee chair Meg Hillier.

I’d be surprised if the £900k-a day-to-Deloitte-alone cost is not raised by Keir Starmer in PMQs this week, given his own emphasis on government failures to give taxpayers value for money in the pandemic. This fits with Anneliese Dodds’ wider pledge last week that the NAO would do an annual audit of a Labour government’s spending (perhaps to reassure the public about her more radical fiscal rule suggestions of only balancing the books over a 20 year period but that’s another story).

Rapid testing may prove a more valuable tool than some government critics assume (I’m writing more about this later this week). Yet a government that is shelling out billions on rapid tests while still quibbling over financial support for people on universal credit is not a great look.‌….