Failed Test and Trace £22 billion; successful Mars landing £1.9bn. Where did all our money go?

In the last 24 hours the Good Law Project has won an historic judgement against the government on the PPE procurement scandal and Perseverance‘s rover has begun the search for microbial life on Mars. It seems entirely reasonable to be having a bit of a “woah, there!” moment when looking at the costs of the ineffective privately-run Test and Trace scheme and NASA’s Mars project and to ask “What the blazes happened to all our money? I mean, test and trace ain’t rocket science, while Perseverance…”

The chances of us finding out are improving. As a consequence of today’s judgement, the Good Law Project has written to Matt Hancock, pointing out that the government has said that it is “committed to learning lessons” from “recent criticicsm of contract awards” and, in that spirit, inviting Matt Hancock “to take steps to restore public confidence in how taxpayers’ money is being spent and ensure the public purse is getting value for money.”

The Good Law Project have asked that he:

  1. Publish the names of all the companies who went through the VIP lane, together with who introduced them and, where they were successful, the prices they were paid.
  2. Commit to recovering public money from all the companies who failed to meet their contractual obligations – and agree an independent process to identify those failures.
  3. Commit to a judge-led public inquiry into the handling of PPE procurement during the pandemic.
  4. Commit to following the lead of other jurisdictions by publishing PPE contracts with pricing details visible to enable proper scrutiny.

Matt Hancock would do well to comply if the government is not to squander yet more of our money defending itself against the Good Law Project’s existing slate of procurement challenges…yes, this is just the first of a whole series.

I think a lot of us would like attention to focus now on Test and Trace. Run by Hancock’s racing mate and serial failer, Dido Harding (she who happily stated that no-one was expecting the virus to mutate, even though that very outcome was being discussed openly for months before she finally twigged) eye-watering sums have been spent on paying external consultants an average of £1000 a day. In November, 2,300 external consultants and contractors were on the payroll. It is rumoured that some were earning up to £7,000 per day.

The National Audit Office expressed reservations last year over value for money and efficacy. Now, it is true that Test and Trace, set up in May 2020, finally managed in December to hit the sort of target percentages that could justify its existence. Have you seen any figures recently? No. Me, neither. That’s because the last update was December 17, 2020. Why?

(Incidentally, contrast the performance of this deliberately-misdescribed NHS operation with the stupendous job done on vaccination by the real NHS!)

A report published recently showed that the success of a test and trace programme depended on people going into self-isolation. In her report to the science and technology committee (which you can watch above), Harding told MPs that thanks to test and trace, the R (reproduction) number for the virus was expected to fall by between 0.6 and 0.8 at the end of March, an improvement on a drop of between 0.3 and 0.6 achieved in October. Greg Clark, committee chair, asked her for the data behind her claim.

The report now makes it clear that even the most successful test and trace programme (we wish!) has a relatively small impact on the virus reproduction rate. The real key is to get people to stay at home. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 20 to 40 per cent of those requested to self-isolate, cannot or do not.

The Guardian reported that:


Dr Kit Yates, a senior lecturer in the department of mathematical sciences at the University of Bath, indicated the considerable resources set aside for NHS Test and Trace could be put to better use by focusing on isolation.

“One can’t help thinking that some of the £22bn – the figure widely quoted as having been earmarked for the operation thus far – might be better spent on providing support for isolation, which is likely to have a significant impact on reducing transmission,” said Yates.

And that £500 of government help for self-isolating? Most people are turned down. Yet another case of a headline with nothing at all behind it.

Now we read that the private operators of Test and Trace are starting to lay people off as infection rates begin to decline in the wake of the most recent lockdown. The Telegraph is running the story as if it were proof of the defeat of the virus and ,given the paper’s support for the likes of Steve Baker and his so-called Covid Recovery Group, that is hardly surprising. (Read Tom Scott’s piece for more on the delightful Mr Baker.)

But what I want to know…and I suspect you do, too… is where did all that money go? Where? Matt Hancock! Tell us. Explain. Account for the money. The Johnson phrase ‘spaffed up the wall’ may, in this instance, be the most accurate answer but we’ll want a bit more detail, thank you very much or Jolyon Maugham and his Good Law Project will have you back in front of the Beak.