England’s Mass Testing Program Unsuccessful Despite Enormous Costs

By Ashok Ramprasad | November 1, 2021
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England’s mass COVID-19 testing program has failed to achieve its main objectives.
England’s mass COVID-19 testing program has failed to achieve its main objectives. (Image: lukasmilan via Pixabay)

England’s government-funded NHS Test and Trace (NHST&T) service were established in May 2020 with the objective of helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, a report published on Oct. 27 states that the Test and Trace system has turned out to be a failure despite receiving “eye-watering” sums of money.

The service was handed an enormous budget of £37 billion ($51 billion) over two years and accounted for nearly 20 percent of the entire 2020–21 budget of the National Health Service (NHS) in England.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House of Commons stated in the report that the mass testing program “has not achieved its main objective to help break chains of COVID-19 transmission and enable people to return towards a more normal way of life.”

The PAC also bemoaned the fact that the outcomes of the program have been “muddled” and “a number of its professed aims have been overstated or not achieved.”

The report argued that the NHST&T did not reduce the number of COVID-19 cases and avert further national lockdowns. Instead, since Oct. 2020, “the country has had two more national lockdowns and case numbers have risen dramatically.”

NHST&T’s “continued reliance” on expensive consultants was another issue that the committee pointed out. The program’s consultants, numbering in the thousands, are paid an average of £1,100 ($1,516) per day.

Out of the 691 million lateral flow tests sent out, the results of only 14 percent were reported. “It is not clear what benefit the remaining 595 million tests have secured,” the committee said.

“For this huge amount of money we need to see a legacy system ready to deliver when needed but it’s just not clear what there will be to show in the long term. This legacy has to be a focus for government if we are to see any value for the money spent,” Dame Meg Hillier (Member of Parliament) MP, Chair of the PAC, said in a statement on Oct. 27.

In order to acquire laboratory capacity to process polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, NHST&T paid £3.1 billion ($4.27 billion) in 2020-21. During this period, £911 million ($1.25 billion) was spent on contact tracing, largely on contact centers. However, the Test and Trace program “used only a minority of the laboratory and contact-center capacity it paid for,” the MPs stated.

Between Nov. 2020 and April 2021, the average utilization of its laboratories had been 45 percent, well below the available laboratory capacity. The committee blamed NHST&T for being preoccupied with getting the programs up and running, and paying less attention “to ensuring these programs delivered the benefits they promised.”

With some vulnerable groups being less inclined to get tested than others, the public’s use of the NHS Test and Trace service is still “variable.” The program was unable to achieve one of its main targets, which was to “identify 60% of COVID-19 cases through its testing.” The new UK Health Service Agency (UKHSA) will soon take control over NHST&T. MPs stated that the program needs a “proper long-term strategy.”

A government representative who acknowledged the report said, “We have built a testing network from scratch that can process millions of tests a day—more than any European country—providing a free LFD or PCR test to anybody who needs one… The new UK Health Security Agency will consolidate the knowledge that now exists across our health system to help us tackle future pandemics and threats.”