“Unimaginable” cost of Test & Trace failed to deliver central promise of averting another lockdown

“British taxpayers cannot be treated by Government like an ATM machine. We need to see a clear plan and costs better controlled.” Meg Hillier

Committees – UK Parliament committees.parliament.uk 

In May last year NHS Test and Trace (NHST&T) was set up with a budget of £22 billion. Since then it has been allocated £15 billion more: totalling £37 billion over two years.

The Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) justified the scale of investment, in part, on the basis that an effective test and trace system would help avoid a second national lockdown – but since its creation we have had two more lockdowns.

In its report Public Accounts Committee says that while NHST&T clearly had to be set up and staffed at incredible speed, it must now “wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants”; there is still no clear evidence of NHST&T’s overall effectiveness; and it’s not clear whether its contribution to reducing infection levels – as opposed to the other measures introduced to tackle the pandemic – can justify its “unimaginable” costs.

The scale of NHST&T’s activities is striking, particularly given its short life. Between May 2020 and January 2021, daily UK testing capacity for COVID-19 increased from around 100,000 to over 800,000 tests. NHST&T had also contacted over 2.5 million people testing positive for COVID-19 in England and advised more than 4.5 million of their associated contacts to self-isolate. 

But the percentage of total laboratory testing capacity used in November and December 2020 remained under 65%, and even with the spare capacity, NHST&T has never met the target to turn around all tests in face-to-face settings in 24 hours. Low utilisation rates – well below the target of 50% – persisted into October last year.  

A major focus for NHST&T in early 2021 was the mass roll-out of rapid testing in different community settings, but there have been particular setbacks for the roll-out to schools, after NHST&T had significantly underestimated the increase in demand for testing when schools and universities returned last September.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“The £23 billion test and trace has cost us so far is about the annual budget of the Department for Transport. Test and Trace still continues to pay for consultants at £1000 a day.

Yet despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project Test and Trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic, and the promise on which this huge expense was justified – avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice.

DHSC and NHST&T must rapidly turn around these fortunes and begin to demonstrate the worth and value of this staggering investment of taxpayers’ money. Not only is it essential it delivers an effective system as pupils return to school and more people return to their workplace, but for the £billions spent we need to see a top class legacy system. British taxpayers cannot be treated by Government like an ATM machine. We need to see a clear plan and costs better controlled.”

Department of Health did £90,000,000 deal with firm listed in Chinese hotel room

The Department of Health (DHSC) signed two PPE deals worth more than £90 million with a state-backed Chinese firm listed at a hotel room in Beijing, newly-published documents show.

Josh Layton metro.co.uk

The heavily-redacted contracts have emerged as the Government is accused of signing off ‘secretive big money deals’ with foreign firms despite British companies having tendered their services.

Matt Hancock’s department spent an estimated £9.5 billion on vital PPE equipment during the first wave as it tried to rush supplies to the NHS supply chain, according to Tussell market intelligence.

The deals struck with Beijing Union Glory Investment Co. Ltd feature in documents which were released last week.

The largest amount was £69.9 million, paid for surgical theatre gowns in a contract that began in May 2020. Under the terms, 70% of the contract value was to be paid by transfer through China Everbright Bank within three working days of the deal being struck.

The company’s address is listed as Room 9401A, Guobin Hotel, No9 Fuwai Street, Xicheng District. The closest hotel is the opulent Presidential Beijing, also known as the Guobin, which lies in the business district, although the postcode is a few digits different.

The grand hotel has 486 bedrooms, including the Royal, Presidential and State suites, which offer a 24-hour butler service, and three executive floors which boast ‘bespoke facilities, business tools and complimentary services’.

The suites are billed as offering ‘an exclusive, discreet environment in which to fuse business or leisure with unsurpassed pleasure’, while guests can also make use of a grand ballroom.

A source familiar with the district said the address provided by Beijing Union Glory is the same as the location given on the hotel’s website.

The Presidential did not reply to a request for comment.  

Another contract for gowns, which listed the same address, was signed off for £26.4 million the previous month.

Again, the terms included a 70% down-payment, this time within two working days. In this instance, the buyer was the British Embassy in Beijing on behalf of the UK Government.

Both documents are heavily redacted with quantities and unit prices blacked out, making it impossible to ascertain if the orders reflected value for money for the taxpayer. Although the award notices have been included on the Government’s online register since October, the corresponding documents were only added last week.

MP Matt Western said British companies which repurposed their operations to respond to the pandemic have been dealt a ‘kick in the teeth’ after being overlooked in favour of contractors mainly based in China and Turkey.

Mr Western has taken up the case of companies which say they were overlooked for PPE contracts despite spending hundreds of thousands of pounds answering a ‘call to arms’ during the first wave.

Mr Western, who represents Warwick and Leamington, said: ‘I have called for the firms in my constituency – and others across the UK that suffered financially after being overlooked for PPE contracts – to be reimbursed by the Government and prioritised for any future NHS contracts. 

‘The secretive big money deals reached with foreign firms like Beijing Union Glory in China is a kick in the teeth for them.

‘Firms like Contechs in my constituency have taken a big hit as a result of this betrayal after the Government’s “call to arms” in April.

‘They invested heavily to develop and manufacture PPE here in the UK, expanding manufacturing space and sourcing capital equipment only to be told at the last minute they would not be successful. 

‘It is infuriating to hear about the DHSC signing off contracts with Conservative Party donors, companies with no prior experience and chums of the Secretary of State – with the equipment purchased sometimes unusable.

‘And now profiteering “middle-men” dealing with Turkish and Chinese companies are granted contracts rather than the Government sourcing directly from our UK companies with UK employees making high quality products at similar or lower cost.’

Allegations of cronyism have repeatedly been denied by Government ministers.

A fast-track lane without the usual procurement and transparency requirements was used in the first wave in an effort to secure supplies for the health service, with the department saying it needed to act in ‘extreme urgency’ during ‘unprecedented’ events.

The Good Law Project (GLP) has been calling on the Department of Health to disclose further information relating to the deals.

The non-profit organisation secured a victory in the High Court last month when the Health Secretary was ruled to have acted unlawfully by not releasing Covid contracts within a 30-day deadline.

The DHSC maintains that its protocols specify that all PPE is quality assured, meets high standards and is only distributed if it meets strict standards in line with the Government’s technical specifications.

The department holds that it has ‘taken advantage of every avenue to get PPE into the country including working with companies that have established productions and delivery routes outside of their normal business’.

It also says that ‘proper due diligence is carried out for all Government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously’, with ‘clear Treasury guidance to ensure value for money was achieved’.

Offers not offering value for money were rejected, according to the DHSC.

The department says it recognises ‘the importance of transparency in the award of public contracts and will continue to publish information about contracts awarded as soon as possible’.

A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to the frontline.

‘Over 8.8billion items have been delivered so far and almost 32billion items have been ordered to provide a continuous supply, which will meet the future needs of health and social care staff.

‘Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously.

‘All offers were prioritised based on volume, price, meeting clinical standards and the time it will take from an offer being accepted by DHSC to the supplier delivering those items.’

On a website for the firm’s parent company, China National Complete Engineering Corporation, Union Glory says it acts with ‘creation, honesty, efficiency and co-prosperity’.

Political donations escape ‘money laundering’ checks, MPs told

Opening a bank account or giving to charity requires tougher checks than donating to a political party, an investigation into “dark money” has heard.

www.independent.co.uk

Charities must prove the cash they receive has not been laundered – yet parties receiving billions of pounds escape any such protections, a Commons committee was told.

“That seems to me to be a fairly big anomaly in the ability to donate money into the political system,” he told the public administration committee.

“There’s absolutely no reason why political parties shouldn’t be able to adopt those customer requirements, because we’ve all had to deal with these when we’ve opened a bank account, when we we’ve done something online.”

“And I see no reason why all parties shouldn’t have to apply those money laundering regulations as well.”

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Dr Clark added: “People are going to be asked for identity to vote – yet no one’s really asking for identity for those who are donating money to political parties.”

The inquiry comes amid Conservative threats to overhaul – or abolish – the Electoral Commission which Amanda Milling, the Tory chairwoman, branded “not fit for purpose”.

The government has been accused of a revenge mission, after the watchdog punished Vote Leave for breaking electoral law during the Brexit referendum campaign.

Meanwhile, the prime minister was accused of giving the Kremlin the green light to meddle in UK politics, after dismissing many of the findings of the Russia report – after eventually releasing it.

But Dr Clark said the Commission’s powers needed to be strengthened, because – with fines capped at just £20,000 – campaigners “don’t see it as serious deterrent”.

“They can exploit loopholes in the law,” he warned, adding: “They will take a fine at the end of it, if they get found out.”

Dr Clark added: “The ISC [intelligence and security committee] Russia report pointed to Russian being able to do this.

“So the permissibility regime that we have is very much beyond its sell-by date. We really do need to be thinking about tightening up here.”

Professor Toby James, of the University of East Anglia, raised fears about the elections in May – postponed from last year – with decisions left to local authorities, amid the pandemic restrictions.

In Scotland, the Holyrood parliament enjoyed powers over day-to-day preparations, while in England and Wales “there is no central authority able to do that”.

“Is every polling station booked? Are they all in place?” he asked, adding: “We’ll see what happens in May.”

Covid outbreak and death confirmed among care home residents in Sidmouth

An extensive Covid-19 outbreak has been confirmed at an East Devon care home where residents and staff had already received their first vaccination.

Anita Merritt www.devonlive.com

It is alleged there were as many as 33 positive coronavirus cases in the space of three days recorded at Holmesley Care Home in Fortescue Road, Sidmouth.

Five residents are thought to have been admitted to hospital, and one of those sadly passed away yesterday.

The care home, which was reported to have had 42 residents living there in September 2020, has not confirmed how many Covid cases there have been, but has said one resident has died.

Residents had reportedly been due their second vaccination this weekend.

Yesterday Devon Live reported cases of coronavirus have quickly risen in an area of East Devon – primarily in the over-85s.

Infection rates in East Devon rose from a low of 33.5/100,000 – the lowest since the end of September – on Saturday, to 45.8/100,000 on Sunday, when cases dated March 2 were added to the data.

The rise is believed to be due to the outbreak in the Sidmouth care home, with the MSOA area reporting 34 cases in the seven day period between February 24 and March 2 – with 29 of them attributed to March 2 alone.

Care home director Will Neal said: “We can confirm that we currently have a high number of positive cases of coronavirus among residents in the home, and that one of our residents has now sadly passed away.

“For nearly 12 months the staff team have worked hard and kept the virus from entering our home. We are deeply saddened by this outbreak.

“Nearly all our residents and the team have received their first dose of the vaccine and were about to have their second dose, and we hope this may have helped prevent an even worse situation.

“We are working closely with Public Health England and Public Health Devon, and have a comprehensive package of measures in place to halt the spread and to ensure that our residents are receiving the care they need.

“We cannot speculate how the virus might have entered our home, but our clear priority right now is the care of our residents and staff and to do all we can to reduce risk of further cases.”

The outbreak is a stark reminder that being vaccinated doesn’t mean transmission will be stopped and that precautions must remain in place for seniors and care homes.

However, vaccines are said to still be effective because they prevent severe illness and death.

The report said: “We looked at infection prevention and control measures under the safe key question.

“We look at this in all care home inspections even if no concerns or risks have been identified. This is to provide assurance that the service can respond to coronavirus and other infection outbreaks effectively.

“We found care was taken to ensure people were safeguarded from the risk of infection. There was a team of housekeepers who took pride in their work. All areas of the home were regularly cleaned.

“There were sufficient stocks of personal protective equipment and staff took all precautions needed to keep people safe.”

A spokesman for Public Health Devon, said: “Public Health England South West and Devon County Council are working together to support staff and residents of Holmesley care home in Sidford following an outbreak of Covid-19 in residents. Sadly a resident has passed away.

“The home is currently closed to visitors.

“Residents and staff in the home have received their first dose vaccinations, which will be providing a level of protection for them.

“In addition, the home has a range of measures in place to respond to this sudden rise positive cases, and to prevent further transmission. There is no current evidence of wider community spread.”

Steve Brown, director of Public Health Devon, said: “This level of outbreak is unusual following the roll out of the vaccination programme, but it is a helpful reminder that we must all stay on our guard.

“While the vaccine roll out is going well and proving effective, we need to remember that no vaccination is ever 100 per cent effective.

“We are working with health colleagues to do everything we can to minimise the spread of the virus in Devon.

“It is important that we do all we can to protect the elderly and vulnerable in care homes, which is why we have issued extensive advice and guidelines to support them in managing suspected and confirmed cases of Covid-19.

“We all have a part to play in reducing the risk of infection and must continue to stay at home and only go outside for food, health reasons or work, but only if you cannot work from home.

“If you do have to leave the house, please stick to the rules – keep your social distance, wear a face covering when indoors in public spaces, and to wash your hands regularly.”

Holmesley Care Home received a focused, but not full inspection, by independent health and social care regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in September 2020. It was rated good for being safe and well-led.

It was the first inspection of the service since it was newly registered in August 2019. People living in the home, staff and most relatives praised the provider and management team for the improvements they had made.

It was noted a visitors room had been set up with a Perspex screen to enable visitors to enter from the outside and sit and talk with their loved-ones safely. Inspectors were told the facility was widely appreciated by people in the home and their relatives.