The UK government’s NHS Test and Trace Service is “overly reliant on expensive contractors and temporary staff”, according to MPs.
In a report the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said in February 2021 Test and Trace was employing around 2,500 contractors with an estimated average daily rate of around £1,100. The highest daily rate was £6,624.
“It is concerning that the DHSC [Department for Health and Social Care] is still paying such amounts – which it considers to be ‘very competitive rates’ – to so many consultants,” said the report.
The PAC said Test and Trace was set up in May 2020 with a budget of £22bn, which has since been increased to £37bn over two years. It said part of the justification for the expense was to avoid a second national lockdown “but since its creation we have had two more lockdowns”.
The report said Test and Trace must “wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants” and it was “not clear whether its contribution to reducing infection levels… can justify its unimaginable costs”.
The PAC said between May 2020 and January 2021 daily testing capacity increased from around 100,000 to more than 800,000 tests, but Test and Trace “has never met the target to turn around all tests in face-to-face settings in 24 hours”.
It said utilisation rates for call handlers through to October 2020 “remained well below the target utilisation rate of 50%, and as low as 1% in August”.
The report said in November 2020 there were 2,300 consultants and contractors working for 73 different suppliers in Test and Trace, with a total consultancy cost of around £375m up to that point.
At the end of October 2020, Test and Trace had signed 407 contracts worth £7bn with 217 public and private organisations, of which 121 (70% of the contract value) were assigned through direct awards without competition under emergency measures. A further 207 contracts worth £1.3bn were awarded in November and December, of which 30 were direct awards.
The report said the PAC challenged DHSC on the value for money on consultancy contracts. “The department felt it had mitigated the risk of profiteering through its approvals and contract management processes, and the way it structured its contracts, e.g. by not committing to fixed levels of volume,” said the report, adding the commercial function at Test and Trace had been “beefed up”.
“The department said that it was as confident as it could be, based on monitoring information, that there was no profiteering.”
The PAC said Test and Trace should put in place a “clear workforce plan and recruitment strategy” with the aim to “reduce significantly, month by month, its reliance on costly consultants and temporary staff”.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “British taxpayers cannot be treated by government like an ATM machine. We need to see a clear plan and costs better controlled.”
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