The government is preparing to shore up its £10bn coronavirus test-and-trace programme by drafting in teams of management consultants.
The programme, where 90% of tests are failing to hit the 24-hour turnaround target, has been touted as a key way in which the country can return to relative normality in the absence of a Covid-19 vaccine and manage any second wave of the virus. However, the system has struggled despite the prime minister pledging earlier this year to create a “world-beating” service. It has been condemned as “barely functional” as it struggles to handle demand of up to four times capacity.
The Guardian has learned that “hundreds” of staff from consulting firms including KPMG have been put on standby to work on “back office” parts of the system “on a short-term basis” over the next six months. Other firms thought to have been contacted for help include EY.
What the UK government said on Covid testing
“Not only are we getting the pandemic under control, with deaths down and hospital admissions way, way down, but we will continue to tackle it, with local lockdowns and with our superlative test-and-trace system.”
“NHS Test and Trace is doing a heroic job, and today most people get an in-person test result within 24 hours, and the median journey is under 10 miles if someone has to take a journey to get one … [To Keir Starmer] We make the tough calls – all he does is sit on the sidelines and carp.”
[On the ‘moonshot’ proposal for mass, near-instant testing:] “We are hopeful this approach will be widespread by the spring and, if everything comes together, it may be possible even for challenging sectors like theatres to have life much closer to normal before Christmas.”
“We don’t have enough testing capacity now because, in an ideal world, I would like to test absolutely everybody that wants a test immediately … Yes, there’s a long way to go, and we will work night and day to ensure that we get there.”
“Of course there is a challenge in testing … We have sent tests to all schools to make sure that they have tests available. But of course I also recognise the challenges in getting hold of tests … Tests are available, even though it is a challenge to get hold of them.”
While the government and the consulting firms are said to still to be negotiating contracts, the consultants are understood to be required in areas including programme management, data, project support and supply chain, and could start work in the next 72 hours.
One person with knowledge of the process said: “The government has gone out to a wide number of firms asking for support on this.”
It is not clear how much the consulting services will cost the taxpayer.
The move to hire hundreds of consultants to shore up the test-and-trace programme comes as millions of people across parts of north-west England and Yorkshire face bans from mixing with other families under tougher restrictions announced to control the spread of coronavirus.
In response to the more stringent rules, the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “I urge local people to isolate and get a test if you have symptoms, follow the advice of NHS test and trace, and always remember ‘hands, face, space’. By sticking to these steps, we will get through this together.”
Earlier this week, the Guardian reported how documents show that tracers are taking up to two weeks to contact friends, relatives and colleagues of people diagnosed with Covid-19 – the entire length of the self-isolation period.
Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, said on Friday that the UK’s testing system “seems barely functional”, adding: “The testing system is in meltdown. People can’t access tests, turnaround times are down, cases are rising. The government is at risk of losing control of the virus.”
However, amid the growing anger and lengthening queues at testing centres, Dido Harding, the head of the test-and-trace programme, told MPs on Thursday: “I strongly refute that the system is failing.”
She said that a sudden increase in demand for the service had not been anticipated, even though capacity had been increased in anticipation of schools reopening.
“We’ve seen a very marked increase in the number of young children coming forward to be tested. So, a doubling of the number of children under 17 coming forward to be tested. And more than that in the ages of five to nine,” she said.
Well-designed and resourced testing regimes have the potential to reduce the reproduction rate of Covid-19 – the R number – by up to 26%, according to a study undertaken by Imperial College.
KPMG and EY declined to comment.
The Department of Health and Social Care did not respond to requests for comment.
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