NHS Test and Trace boss Dido Harding has defended spending upwards of £1,000-a-day on consultants for the beleaguered contact tracing programme.
During a grilling from the Public Accounts Committee, Harding told MPs she felt it was “appropriate” to bring in external help in “extreme emergency circumstances using short-term contingent labour and consultants for some of those roles”.
“I think they’ve done very important work alongside the public servants, the military, the healthcare professionals and members of the private sector who have come and joined us as well,” she added.
Figures released last week showed the contact tracing programme currently employs around 2,300 management consultants on average pay of £7,000 each day.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has spent more than £375m on private consultancy services for Test and Trace since the start of the pandemic — the equivalent of £163,000 per consultant.
However, Harding said the figure was now likely to be much closer to £1,000 a day per consultant.
David Williams, a senior civil servant at DHSC, admitted that Test and Trace has had a “reliance on consultancy support, particularly in operational delivery of the testing programme”, but said the government was mulling “plans to reduce reliance on consultancy over the coming year”.
Tamzen Isacsson, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), said the consulting sector has provided “multi-disciplinary capabilities and senior experience very quickly to support government” during the pandemic.
Consultants have “helped deal with complex negotiations around data, infrastructure and procurement at pace,” she said, adding: “The cost charged by consulting firms working on Test and Trace will include security system and technical requirements, product development costs, solution developments, legal costs, overheads, training and recruitment costs.”
The Test and Trace scheme, which has so far cost the UK taxpayer more than £22bn, has faced sharp criticism for repeatedly failing to meet targets.
A recent £7bn funding top up from the chancellor meant the total NHS Test and Trace budget is now more than the combined budgets for England’s police and fire services, which this year will receive £15.2bn and £3bn respectively.
The £22bn figure also dwarfs the amount of cash the government has allocated for coronavirus vaccines. The UK has so far spent just £2.7bn on vaccines for Britain and low income countries.
Analysis by City A.M. earlier this month showed Test and Trace failed to reach more than 30,000 people who tested positive for coronavirus in the week before Christmas, at the same time the government warned that a new coronavirus mutation was spreading across the country.
Asked about the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (Sage) suggestion in September that the testing programme was having a “marginal” impact on transmission, Harding said: “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 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 [of] the 92 per cent of all contacts we reached last week… 97 per cent of them we reached in less than 24 hours.”