NHS Test and Trace still has 900 consultants on the books on £1,000 a day

Harry Yorke
·4-min read
Baroness Harding insisted that external consultants were necessary to help scale up the programme
Baroness Harding insisted that external consultants were necessary to help scale up the programme

NHS Test and Trace is still employing 900 consultants on an average rate of £1,000 per day, it has emerged, as the Conservative peer in charge of the programme insisted it was now having a “material impact” on tackling the pandemic.

Insisting that the £22bn programme had now turned a corner, Baroness Harding on Monday argued that it was “appropriate” to call on external expertise in “extreme emergency circumstances.”

Appearing before the Commons public accounts committee, she told MPs that it was now performing “substantially better” than the targets it was initially set by the Government’s scientific advisory group.

More than 7.5 million people had been tested in the first two weeks of January, while 1 million people had been reached by contact tracers in the first seven days of the year, she added.

Watch: PM - Test and Trace played important part in pandemic

It came as the latest daily coronavirus data showed that the UK now has a testing capacity of 806,417 a day, with more than 417,000 conducted on Sunday.

However, Baroness Harding came under pressure over the staggering costs associated with the programme, as health officials at the hearing revealed that 900 consultants from the firm Deloitte were still “on the books” on an average four-figure day rate.

The figure is down by approximately 100 since October, with MPs stating that, as recently as November, there 2,300 consultants and contractors working on the scheme.

Asked how this could be considered value for money, David Williams, the second permanent secretary of the Department for Health, insisted the programme would not have been able to deliver its current output without the support of a range of external consultants.

Coronavirus testing: UK daily breakdown
Coronavirus testing: UK daily breakdown

He insisted he had “seen no evidence” of “profiteering”, and that £18bn of the £22bn spent on the programme had been on increasing testing capacity and improving infrastructure.

Baroness Harding added that externally-reviewed estimates suggested the system was lowering the R number by between 0.3 and 0.6, but that this was likely to increase to between 0.5 and 0.8 by the end of March.

Asked if she believed the programme was only having a marginal impact on cases, as suggested in September, she continued: “There is no doubt that as we have built and scaled the service, we have learnt more and more and we are now hitting all of the operational contact tracing targets that Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) set us.

"We are reaching more than 80 per cent of people who test positive, we are reaching more than 90 per cent of their contacts and the 92 per cent of all contacts we reached last week - three-quarters of a million people - 97 per cent of them we reached in less than 24 hours.

"So, no, I don't believe we are having a marginal impact, actually. As measured, we are having a material impact in the fight against Covid."

It comes after months of criticism over the spiralling costs of test and trace, which has faced widespread scrutiny over the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on private consultants and contracts handed to companies directly without competition.

Last month, the National Audit Office found it has also repeatedly failed to meet a number of its targets, with many call handlers spending periods with little work to do.

However, defending the advances made by the programme, Baroness Harding told MPs that it had improved considerably in recent months.

Echoing her comments, Mr Williams said the Department was looking to secure more “favourable rates” for external consultants and intended to reduce the reliance on firms over the next 12 months.

Pressed on new outbreaks in care homes, Baroness Harding said that every case was a “tragedy” but insisted that contact tracing had led to “substantially fewer outbreaks” in the second wave compared to the first.

On mass testing in schools, she also confirmed that as many as 250,000 rapid lateral flow tests had been conducted in the past week, which included teachers and children of key workers, as well as vulnerable pupils.

Watch: Matt Hancock self-isolating again