- THE TELEGRAPH - The Lockdown Files Team - Mar 6, 2023 -
WhatsApp messages between Matt Hancock and advisers show he was shocked at learning extent of spending
Consultants were paid a total of £1 million a day to work on the NHS Test and Trace system for more than a year of the pandemic, despite ministers being “very worried” about the spending.
WhatsApp messages between Matt Hancock, then the health secretary, and his team of special advisers, show that he was shocked at learning the extent of Whitehall spending on external consultants to prop up the government’s ailing contact tracing system in January 2021.
He asked for the “exit strategy” and Emma Dean, his special adviser, said she had been “nagging” the department about it since November 2020.
Despite the concerns, figures show that the number of consultants actually increased to 2,586 the following month, and it was not until July 2021 that Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), told MPs that there was a “very detailed ramp-down plan” to cut the number of consultants.
The agency said it planned to hire civil servants to replace the use of expensive external contractors. Another six months later, official data released to the public accounts committee showed that Test and Trace was still employing 1,476 consultants at an average daily rate of £1,244 – an average cost to the taxpayer of £1.8 million per day. Despite routine contact tracing ending in February 2022, UKHSA was still spending £573,000 per day on consultants in May that year. Overall, the cost of consultants to the taxpayer was £450 million.
Mr Hancock appears to have been made aware of the problem after David Williams, a senior civil servant, appeared before a parliamentary select committee on Jan 19, 2021.
Mr Williams told MPs the programme had been employing around 900 consultants at a rate of £1,000 per day. He said it would not have been possible to deliver the Test and Trace service without the use of “a range of consultants”, adding: “I don’t think we are being taken advantage of.”
On hearing the news, Mr Hancock told his advisers: “I am very worried about this. What is our exit strategy from this use of consultants?”
Others in his team replied that they were aware of the problem and tabled it for discussion at a “quad” meeting of senior Cabinet ministers the following day.
Despite Ms Dean raising concerns in November 2020 it was a further 18 months before UKHSA said it planned to run the programme with “an absolute minimum” of external consultants in July 2022.
The WhatsApp messages also raise fresh questions about the cost of the Test and Trace programme, which was accused by MPs of spending “unimaginable” sums and treating taxpayers “like an ATM machine” without making a “measurable difference” to case numbers in the UK.
The contracts were awarded to a variety of top agencies, including Deloitte, IBM, Accenture and Boston Consulting Group.
Lord Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister who ultimately resigned from Boris Johnson’s government over the handling of Covid fraud, wrote to senior civil servants arguing that Whitehall had become “infantilised” by an “unacceptable” reliance on management consultants.
The Department of Health and Social Care and UKHSA have consistently defended the use of consultants during the pandemic, which they said was required to fulfil specialised roles “in competitive market places” including IT.