THE UK Government has been accused of treating British taxpayers like an “ATM machine” and wasting billions of pounds on projects which have made no “measurable difference”.

The accusations come in a report published today by the Westminster Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is tasked with overseeing government expenditure.

The committee’s report takes issue with the £37 billion which has been allocated to fund England’s NHS Test and Trace (NHST&T) since May 2020.

Despite the NHS name, the project is a largely outsourced programme, involving at least 22 private companies.

Campaigners say the PAC report proves that the Tories' reliance on private companies has failed, putting "countless lives needlessly at risk".

The PAC chair, Labour MP Meg Hillier, said that “despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project, NHST&T cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic”.

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She added: “The promise on which this huge expense was justified – avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice.

“British taxpayers cannot be treated by government like an ATM machine. We need to see a clear plan and costs better controlled.”

England’s NHST&T was set up with an initial budget of £22bn. Since then it has been allocated a further £15bn. It is run by the Tory peer Dido Harding.

Hillier said that for this “staggering investment”, taxpayers deserved not only an effective system now, but a “top class legacy system”.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has justified the scale of investment, in part, on the basis that an effective test and trace system would help avoid a second national lockdown. However, England has been completely locked down twice more since its creation.

The National: UK Health Secretary Matt HancockUK Health Secretary Matt Hancock

The PAC report says there is no clear evidence of NHST&T’s overall effectiveness, and it’s not clear whether its contribution to reducing infection levels - as opposed to the other measures introduced to tackle the pandemic - can justify its unimaginable costs.

The committee also says that while NHST&T clearly had to be set up and staffed at incredible speed, it must now “wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants”. Hillier said it “still continues to pay for consultants at £1000 a day”.

The report also says that the Covid testing programme has failed to hit key targets. It says that the percentage of total laboratory testing capacity used in November and December 2020 remained under 65%, and even with the spare capacity, NHST&T has never met the target to turn around all tests in face-to-face settings in 24 hours.

It notes that low utilisation rates - well below the target of 50% - persisted into October last year.

Pascale Robinson, campaigns officer at We Own It, which lobbies for public services to be run “for people not profit”, said the UK Government’s insistence on privatisation had “demonstrably failed”.

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He said: "This report is a damning indictment on the government's handling of test and trace throughout the pandemic. As the Public Accounts Committee rightly highlights, the government discarded the knowledge and experience in our public health teams and built a system reliant on private companies and consultants.

"This approach has been a disaster. The private sector has demonstrably failed to deliver an effective test and trace system, leaving the public unnecessarily exposed to coronavirus and putting countless lives needlessly at risk.

"The government must act on this immediately. It's time to kick the private companies that have made a complete mess of the system out and put our local public health teams, NHS and primary care services in charge, so that the national system supports what works, and locally based test and trace links up with national best practice and data sharing. That's the only way we'll get the test and trace system we need to keep people safe."

Responding on behalf of the UK Government, Dido Harding said: “NHS Test and Trace is essential in our fight against Covid-19 and regular testing is a vital tool to stop transmission as we cautiously ease restrictions. Protecting communities and saving lives is always our first priority and every pound spent is contributing towards our efforts to keep people safe - with 80% of NHS Test and Trace’s budget spent on buying and carrying out coronavirus tests.

“After building a testing system from scratch, we have now carried out over 83 million coronavirus tests - more than any other comparable European country - and yesterday alone we conducted over 1.5 million tests. We are now rolling out regular rapid asymptomatic testing which is supporting children to go back to school, people to go to work and visitors to see their loved ones in care homes.

“NHS Test and Trace has successfully reached 93.6% of the contacts of positive cases - with 98% being contacted within 24 hours, and the contact tracing service has already reached more than 9.1 million cases and contacts, making a real impact in breaking chains of transmission.”