Test and Trace is the Dead Elephant in the Room

Photograph Source: Stephen Craven – CC BY-SA 2.0

As Britain enters a post-pandemic era, its struggle with Covid-19 reveals a country that is a complicated mix of strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, Britain has developed, manufactured and distributed effective vaccines quicker than any other nation. On the other, it has constructed the biggest gravy train in British history, one that pays consultants as much as £6,624 a day to run the failed NHS Test and Trace system at a cost of £37bn over two years.

It is important to know why there are these two very different responses of Britain to the crisis, the one that’s a stunning success and the other a scandalous failure. The Covid-19 epidemic, as in a war, tells us much about the British state and society and what “makes them tick” – or, in some cases, not tick.

A bit of Britain that demonstrably does not “tick” is described in a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee issued this week, skewering the multiple failures of the grotesquely expensive NHS T&T. Established in May 2020 and headed by Baroness Dido Harding, it was intended to break the transmission of Covid-19 by identifying infected people and their contacts at speed and getting them to isolate. The evidence is that it comprehensively failed to achieve any of these aims.

The report was described as “damning” in its conclusions by much of the media, but the reality is even more serious. It portrays what is condemned by Lord Macpherson, the former permanent secretary at the Treasury, as “the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”.

More is at stake here than waste and ineptitude, because the competition between what might be called “Vaccine Britain” and “Gravy Train Britain” is by no means over and either might become the future dominant strain in British political and commercial life.

Government ministers evidently hope that people will not pay much attention to the giant fiasco of NHS T&T because they are so relieved to be vaccinated. They even claim, in the teeth of evidence cited by the parliamentary committee and the National Audit Office (NAO), that the programme has been a great success, citing figures issued by NHS T&T to get it off the hook, showing the vast number of people tested.

Its announcements remind me of the figures for the soaring output of coal and steel that used to be publicised in the Soviet Union to show that the economy was in rude health. Testing alone means nothing in terms of stopping the transmission of coronavirus unless the results come back quickly enough, as they have regularly failed to do, for those testing positive to limit their social contacts.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).