In Brief

Coronavirus: test-and-trace callers worked just 1% of paid hours, watchdog finds

Damming report calls for urgent improvements to £22bn system that failed to avert second lockdown

Call handlers for the £22bn NHS Test and Trace scheme worked just 1% of their paid hours during the failed push to avert a second lockdown, according to the government’s spending watchdog.

In a newly published report, the National Audit Office (NAO) says that the low “utilisation rates” of 18,000 call handlers employed in May saw just 32% of people infected with Covid reached by the service over the ensuing months - well below the government’s target of 44%.

“Auditors found that clinical workers employed by the project were also barely used in the programme’s early months”, working only 4% of their paid hours, says The Telegraph.

Workers told the paper back in August that they were effectively being “paid to watch Netflix”, with one employee claiming to have received £4,500 in wages without getting a single call.

 The government “has now reduced the number of call handlers, but rates of use remained below a 50% target throughout September and much of October”, says an article on the BMJ website.

The NAO report describes how the case for spending more on test-and-trace services was framed as a means by which to avoid another lockdown - an effort that proved unsuccessful.

The watchdog concludes that there was “unclear accountability” in relation to both who was responsible for running the system and the awarding of contracts.

Presenting the findings, NAO chief Gareth Davies said: “Test and Trace is core to the UK’s pandemic response. It must improve its performance with a focus on effective engagement.”

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Committee of Public Accounts, has also called on Test and Trace bosses to up their game. “The government needs to urgently work out what’s going wrong at every step of the process,” she said. “Throwing more money at the problem clearly isn’t the answer. 

“The good news about vaccines doesn’t mean we don’t need a match-fit test-and-trace system now – and one ready for the planned step-up to mass testing.”

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