LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The UK's coronavirus test-and-trace programme has failed to demonstrate it has contributed to a fall in infection rates - despite its "unimaginable" £22 billion (S$41 billion) cost so far, according to the British Parliament's spending watchdog.
In a report Wednesday (March 10), the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said there was "still no clear evidence" of the programme's overall effectiveness and it had failed to deliver on its "central promise" to prevent a second national lockdown in England - or a third.
"British taxpayers cannot be treated by government like an ATM machine," committee chair Meg Hillier said in a statement. "Despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project, test-and-trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic."
In response to the claim, British transport minister Grant Shapps said on Wednesday that the pandemic would have been worse without the test-and-trace programme.
“Whatever the coronavirus experience we have had as a nation, good and bad, it would have been one heck of a lot worse if we didn’t have a test and trace system which has contacted so many people and prevented the disease from spreading further,” he told Sky News.
England is currently more than two months into its third lockdown after a surge in cases and hospitalisations over the winter, and schools have only just reopened after closing their doors at the start of the year.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is relying on an effective test-and-trace system, alongside an ambitious vaccination roll-out, to allow him to gradually open more sectors of the economy in the coming months.
He is facing demands from some of his own members of Parliament to act faster. But Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, warned Tuesday that unlocking too quickly would lead to a fresh surge in infections.
"A lot of people may think this is all over," Prof Whitty said. "It is very easy to forget how quickly things can turn bad."
The test-and-trace programme, run by Ms Dido Harding, is due to receive another £15 billion in the next financial year - taking the total bill to £37 billion in two years. It has long faced criticism for failing to deliver on key metrics, including rapid test turnaround times and tracing people who have been in close contact with a confirmed case.
In a statement, Ms Harding said: "Protecting communities and saving lives is always our first priority and every pound spent is contributing towards our efforts to keep people safe, with 80 per cent of NHS Test and Trace's budget spent on buying and carrying out coronavirus tests."
She said the programme had carried out over 83 million tests and successfully reached 93.6 per cent of the contacts of positive cases.
The PAC, a cross-party group of MPs, acknowledged that daily UK testing capacity had increased from around 100,000 last May to over 800,000 in January. But less than two thirds of laboratory capacity was used in November and December last year, it said.
The committee also raised fears about the test-and-trace programme's "persistent reliance" on consultants and temporary staff, who cost an average of £1,100 each per day, with the highest paid £6,624 a day.
Ms Rachel Reeves, a spokesman for the opposition Labour party, said the system had led to "epic amounts of waste and incompetence", and called for contact tracing to be run by local public health teams.