A well-functioning test and trace programme is key to our success in the fight against the COVID-19 virus. Since May 2020, the NHS Test and Trace Service (NHST&T) has led the national programme for testing and tracing in England, aiming to help break chains of transmission and enable people to return to a normal way of life.
The scale of NHST&T’s activities is striking, particularly given its short life. Between May 2020 and January 2021, daily UK testing capacity for COVID-19 increased from around 100,000 to over 800,000 tests. NHST&T had also contacted over 2.5 million people testing positive for COVID-19 in England and advised more than 4.5 million of their associated contacts to self-isolate.
NHST&T, however, still has work to do to ensure it meets its critical targets and objectives in a timely and cost-efficient manner. We appreciate that NHST&T had to be set up and staffed at incredible speed, but in particular it now needs to wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants and temporary staff. Up to November 2020, NHST&T had spent £5.7 billion, although it has been allocated far more (£37 billion over two years). The Department of Health & Social Care justified the scale of investment, in part, on the basis that an effective test and trace system would help avoid a second national lockdown; but since its creation we have had two more lockdowns. There is still no clear evidence to judge NHST&T’s overall effectiveness. It is unclear whether its specific contribution to reducing infection levels, as opposed to the other measures introduced to tackle the pandemic has justified its costs.
A major focus for NHST&T in early 2021 was the mass roll-out of rapid testing in different community settings, but there have been particular setbacks for the roll-out to schools. Both the Department and NHST&T must learn lessons from this about their role in engaging stakeholders and setting out how rapid tests can be used. The Department must also remain one step ahead in setting the future strategy for the national test and trace service, including how to secure long-term benefits from the vast expenditure it will have incurred.
This is our first examination of NHST&T and its performance. We intend to follow up on progress on the test and trace programme later in the year.