UK MPs say $32bn test-and-trace system failed to curb pandemic

‘World-beating’ scheme promised by PM Boris Johnson has failed to prevent repeated COVID lockdowns, report says.

Opposition politicians have called for the test-and-trace programme to be run by the state-run National Health Service (NHS) [File: Carl Recine/Reuters]

A $32bn test-and-trace system in the United Kingdom has failed to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, some MPs claimed on Wednesday, claims that were swiftly rebuked by the government.

A report by the UK Parliament’s cross-party Public Accounts Committee said the scheme had not achieved a key goal of avoiding a cycle of national lockdowns in England, despite a 23-billion-pound outlay.

“Despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project Test and Trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic,” chair of the committee and opposition Labour party MP Meg Hillier said.

“The promise on which this huge expense was justified – avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice.”

Hillier warned that taxpayers were at risk of being “treated by the government like an ATM machine” to finance the programme, which is run by the UK’s National Institute for Health Protection, an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Her committee’s report noted the scheme was overly reliant on expensive private consultants costing £1,100 ($1,529) a day on average and, in some instances, more than £6,600 ($9,150).

“We need to see a clear plan and costs better controlled,” Hillier said.

‘World-beating’ scheme falters

Defending the programme in the wake of the committee’s report, Transport Minister Grant Shapps said it helped limit the spread of new COVID-19 variants.

“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,” Shapps told Sky News.

Dido Harding, the scheme’s boss, said the UK had conducted more COVID-19 tests than “any other comparable European country” since Test and Trace launched last May.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised at the time that the tracing system would be “world-beating”.

But its limited effect since then has drawn repeated criticism, with opposition politicians calling for it to be run by the state-run National Health Service (NHS).

Last year scientific advisers said the scheme was not significantly reducing the spread of the coronavirus.

England entered a second national lockdown in the autumn. A third followed in the winter and remains in place.

Asked about the effectiveness of the system, Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance on Tuesday said the testing system was now good and would take on renewed importance in the coming months.

The committee’s report came days after England eased lockdown measures which began on January 5.

The government hopes to end all lockdown measures by late June as it continues with testing and a mass vaccination programme; all adults should receive a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of July.

UK-EU vaccine row

Separately on Wednesday, tensions between the European Union and the UK rose over accusations of so-called vaccine nationalism, the latest row between the bloc and its former member.

The EU envoy in London was summoned on Wednesday to explain comments that the UK had issued a vaccine export ban.

The UK was so irate about Tuesday’s comments from European Council President Charles Michel that it had “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines”, that it called in the ambassador for a morning meeting.

A UK government statement said that it “has not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine. Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false.”

The row comes against the backdrop of a major discrepancy in the UK and EU’s COVID-19 vaccination drives.

About a third of the UK’s adult population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, while fewer than 10 percent of adults across the 27-member EU received a shot.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies