Auditors say NHS test and trace program not reaching enough people

New report says £22 billion program is failing to meet key targets.

Auditors say NHS test and trace program not reaching enough people

LONDON — The National Health Service’s £22 billion test and trace program has not been able to reach enough people who had contact with coronavirus patients to tell them to isolate and is failing to meet other targets, according to the National Audit Office.

In its interim report out Friday, the NAO says that while the NHS Test and Trace program in England has rapidly scaled up since the spring and tested millions of people, it is still failing to hit key objectives, including delivering test results within 24 hours.

Testing turnaround within 24 hours peaked in June at 93 percent but deteriorated to a low of 14 percent in mid-October. Just 38 percent of results were reported in 24 hours in early November.

The auditors found, “at times, parts of the national tracing service have barely been used.”

In mid-June, the proportion of time that tracers actively worked was 4 percent for 3,000 health care professionals and 1 percent for 18,000 call handler staff. In October, staff utilization rates were well below a 50 percent target.

While the proportion of people reached with a positive test increased from 73 percent to 85 percent, from May to October, the proportion of close contacts reached dropped from 91 percent to 60 percent.

Meanwhile, the program has signed contracts worth £7 billion with 217 public and private organizations to provide supplies, services and infrastructure. A further 154 contracts, worth £16.2 billion, will be signed by March 2021.

In total, 70 percent of early contracts, by value, were directly awarded without competition under emergency measures that were in use across the government.

“This report strengthens the case that we must start by taking a hard look at performance and cost-effectiveness before any third wave hits,” said Billy Palmer, a senior fellow at health care think tank Nuffield Trust.