A 115-word passage in a damning report of the government's handling of the COVID pandemic has laid bare the failure of the £37bn test and trace scheme.
The passage was part of a report by MPs that concluded the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, and that ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures and wasted money as well as other key resources.
The wide-ranging report was intensely critical of many aspects of the government's handling of the pandemic, but also praised some actions taken by officials, especially the vaccine rollout.
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It singled out NHS Test and Trace for being a huge waste of money that was flawed from the start and failed in its objectives.
The most damaging passage said:
Despite being one of the first countries in the world to develop a test for COVID in January 2020, the United Kingdom failed to translate that scientific leadership into operational success in establishing an effective test and trace system during the first year of the pandemic.
The slow, uncertain, and often chaotic performance of the test, trace and isolate system severely hampered the UK’s response to the pandemic.
This was partly because NHS Test and Trace was only established when daily infections had risen to 2,000. The result was that the Test and Trace operation ultimately failed in its stated objective to prevent future lockdowns despite vast quantities of taxpayers’ money being directed to it.
NHS Test and Trace began operating in May 2020, after the government initially abandoned tracing methods in March when infections were out of control – despite intense criticism from the scientific community.
Despite its name, it was not part of the NHS and was effectively run by the private company Serco. It was led by Conservative peer Dido Harding.
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NHS Test and Trace was criticised for failing to meet its targets and lambasted as a waste of money.
The report also accused UK leaders of not caring about what was being achieved early in the pandemic by East Asian countries that managed to set up test and trace systems before infections were out of control.
The MPs said this was an "inexcusable oversight".
The report also said the decision to abandon community testing early on in the pandemic "cost many lives".
The authors regularly referred to how late the operation was set up and how the need for it to get quick immediate results crippled it from the start.
This led to it being highly centralised at first, and it often failed to accept support when offered from external organisations, most notably university laboratories.
The MPs also pointed out that because of this highly centralised nature, NHS Test and Trace failed to utilise the expertise of regional public health directors, despite local test and trace efforts being shown to be highly effective.
"Vast sums of taxpayers’ money were directed to Test and Trace, justified by the benefits of avoiding further lockdowns. But ultimately those lockdowns happened," the report added.
The MPs also pointed out that because NHS Test and Trace was not run by the health service it often hired specialists from the private sector, meaning the institutional learning from the key period of the pandemic was lost.
NHS Test and Trace also consistently failed to reach the 72-hour turnaround time as identified as necessary by the government, including a significant failure in September 2020.
The authors concluded NHS Test and Trace fell short of its expectations, and failed its own objective of avoiding another lockdown.
They said the UK has only recently managed to create a fully fledged contact tracing system – when most of the nation is vaccinated.