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England’s $32 billion COVID-19 Test & Trace not making big difference, lawmakers say

LONDON (Reuters) – England’s $32 billion test and trace system has not made a significant impact on the COVID-19 pandemic and failed its key goals despite its “unimaginable” cost, a British parliamentary committee said on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year promised a world beating test and trace system as part of the route out of the pandemic.

But it has taken the successful development and deployment of vaccines to let the government plot a definitive route back to normality.

“Despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project, test and trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic,” said Meg Hillier, chair of the British parliament’s Public Accounts Committee and an opposition Labour party lawmaker.

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

The Public Accounts Committee said that test and trace had cost 23 billion pounds ($32 billion) so far but had not achieved a key goal of avoiding a cycle of national lockdowns.

The system has been allocated 37 billion pounds in total to cover two years, a budget which includes the cost of testing people with symptoms and regular testing in schools, care homes and some work places.

Johnson said that the system deserved credit for the proposed roadmap for reopening by the summer.

“It is thanks to NHS test and trace that we’re able to send kids back to school and begin cautiously and irreversibly to reopen our economy and restart our lives,” Johnson told parliament.

Dido Harding, who runs the system, said that regular testing was “a vital tool to stop transmission” and that contact tracing made “a real impact in breaking chains of transmission”, having reached more than 9.1 million cases and contacts.

Last year, scientific advisers said test and trace was not significantly reducing the spread of the coronavirus. England then entered a second lockdown in the autumn.

Test and trace’s use of highly paid consultants, at a time when health workers face below-inflation pay rises, has attracted particular ire.

The committee’s report said that test and trace was overly reliant on expensive contractors. It found that in early February, the scheme was employing around 2,500 consultants from firms such as Deloitte, earning an estimate day rate of around 1,100 pounds, with some paid more than 6,500 pounds.

“It is concerning that the (health ministry) is still paying such amounts – which it considers to be ‘very competitive rates’ – to so many consultants,” the report said.

“(Test and trace) should put in place a clear workforce plan and recruitment strategy which aim to reduce significantly, month by month, its reliance on costly consultants and temporary staff.”

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