England’s multi-billion pound NHS Test and Trace system still contains significant weaknesses, a watchdog has warned.
The National Audit Office (NAO) review highlighted that the system is missing targets and the results of millions of tests to find asymptomatic cases have not been reported.
The programme, which was given a budget of £22bn, was launched in May 2020 to oversee testing of people who thought they had Covid-19 and then to trace the contacts of those who tested positive.
Critics say it has wasted huge sums of money and failed in its primary objective of breaking the chain of transmission.
The NAO did, however, note that the system had expanded its capacity and improved its performance since a report last year found it was failing to meet its objectives.
Late results and unreturned tests
The latest review found that during a surge in cases in December, only 17 per cent of people received test results in 24 hours, against a target of 90 per cent.
Since the government launched an asymptomatic testing programme in October, 691m lateral flow test kits had been sent out in England but the results of only 14 per cent had been returned.
The NAO said the system, which had underspent its budget by £8.7m, still had “low or variable” public compliance, with only a minority of symptomatic people requesting a test or self-isolating.
“Some pressing challenges need to be tackled if it is to achieve its objectives and deliver value for taxpayers, including understanding how many lateral flow devices are actually being used and increasing public compliance with testing and self-isolation,” NAO head Gareth Davies said.
Labour calls report ‘damning’
The Department of Health said that since its launch, the service had identified 3.4m positive cases and told 7.1m contacts to self-isolate, and that the NAO had recognised improvements had been made.
“The testing and tracing being delivered across the country is saving lives every single day and helping us send this virus into retreat by breaking chains of transmission and spotting outbreaks wherever they exist,” a department spokesperson said.
The Labour Party said the report was damning. “The government has been told time and again that if we are going to bring down cases, it needs to ensure people can afford to self-isolate, but it has refused to listen,” its health spokesman Justin Madders said.