Test and Trace lost track of 600m lateral flow tests in England as 14% go unused

Friday, 25th June 2021, 9:39 am
595 million later flow tests have not been registered (Photo: Getty Images)
595 million later flow tests have not been registered (Photo: Getty Images)

Around 600 million rapid result Covid-19 tests which were distributed by Test and Trace may have gone unused, a watchdog has found.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said only 96 million of the 691 million lateral flow tests have been registered since mass testing was rolled out by the NHS in England in October, leaving 595 million tests untraceable.

Millions of tests unaccounted for

Only 14 per cent of lateral flow Covid-19 tests handed out were registered with Test and Trace, meaning 595 million tests have gone unaccounted for.

Test and Trace bosses had forecast that between March and May this year, 655 million lateral flow tests would be used in the UK.

But while close to 700 million of the tests have been given out in England, the NAO said “only a small number of the tests distributed have been registered as used”.

Ministers had hoped the rollout of the tests, which can return results in just 30 minutes, would help people return to workplaces, with the tests available to order online or collect from local pharmacies.

The progress report, which covers November 2020 to April 2021, said: “NHS T&T does not know whether the tests that have not been registered have been used or not.

“It has started a programme of research to understand why the registration of test results is so low and is working to increase public awareness of the need to register results and improve its ability to track tests.”

'Well below target'

The NAO also found that Test and Trace’s performance for returning the result of tests taken in the community within 24 hours “fell well below its target” during the winter spike in Covid-19 cases in December. Only 17 per cent of people received their results within a day in December, a figure that had been scaled up to 90 per cent by April.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said that the lack of registrations was a “pressing challenge” that needed addressing.

He explained: “Since we last reported in December, NHS Test and Trace has introduced a lot of changes, including mass testing, closer working with local authorities and initiatives to identify and contain variant forms of Covid-19.

“However, some pressing challenges need to be tackled if it is to achieve its objectives and deliver value for taxpayers, including understanding how many lateral flow devices are actually being used and increasing public compliance with testing and self-isolation.”

Meanwhile, Labour called the findings “damning” and said it was “astounding” that almost 600 million tests had gone unaccounted for.

Labour shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “This report is damning. If lateral flow tests are going to play their part in helping society reopen, ministers need to make sure results are registered.

“The British people have sacrificed so much. The Government needs to step up.”

Expensive contracts and underused resources

In its 76-page report, the audit office also raised concerns about the proposals to transition Test and Trace to become the new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) by October.

It said there is a risk that the restructuring will “divert attention away from efforts to contain the spread of the virus”, but the Department for Health said the change would help “face down potential future threats and viruses”.

The NAO found the Test and Trace programme, which until April was run by former Talk Talk boss Baroness Harding, had an underspend of £8.7 billion, which is almost 40 per cent of its overall budget. Its bill for 2020 to 21 came in at £13.5 billion.

The operation told the NAO that the underspend was because a predicted high level of demand for testing in January and February did not materialise due to the third national lockdown.

Additionally, the delay in the rollout of mass testing to all households from January to March also contributed to the underspend, along with some commercial savings.

However, the watchdog concluded that NHS Test and Trace continues to “rely heavily on consultants” and has not reduced this as planned.

A total of 45 per cent of staff at its central office were consultants at the mid-April mark, while the average utilisation rate for its laboratories between November 2020 and April 2021 was only 45 per cent – almost half the threshold deemed safe.

Moreover, the amount awarded in terms of contract value more than doubled from £1.1 billion in April-June 2020 to £2.6 billion in January-March 2021.

Dr Billy Palmer, a senior fellow at Nuffield Trust, said: “Test and trace is now over a year old but is still falling seriously short of its performance targets despite the eye-watering cost to the taxpayer.

“The £14 billion price tag so far remains a concern. This report highlights expensive contracts and underused resources such as laboratories and contact tracers.

“More work is needed to ensure the potential benefits of this vast investment are future-proofed.”