THE difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that, in a free society, the government is accountable to the public for its spending of public money on temporary measures to deal with a crisis. Yet we have witnessed during the last year how often the Government has used the excuse of the pandemic to make secret deals and deny accountability.
A major case in point is the NHS Test and Trace system (NHST&T). It was launched in May 2020 with four aims: ‘to test, trace, contain and enable’ with the purpose of achieving an overall reduction of virus infection, thus in theory preventing further lockdowns. It has been allocated a budget of £37billion over two years. (To put the sum in context, that is more than twice the £17billion spent on PPE.)
Under the scheme, individuals with an Android or iPhone can download an NHS App which alerts users to other users nearby who have tested positive for the virus. It also lets you know the level of risk in your postcode, creates a QR code (a machine-readable optical label) for venues, helps you check your symptoms, book a test and tells you to self-isolate if positive. Because our technologically-impaired but technocratically enthusiastic government proved incapable of creating its own app, it is run with the help of Apple and Google.
It has hardly been an unrivalled success. By December 2020 the National Audit Office pointed out that it was ‘achieving too few test results delivered within 24 hours and too few contacts of infected people being reached and told to self-isolate’.
In March the Public Accounts Committee said that despite ‘unimaginable’ spending, the impact of NHS Test and Trace was still unclear. They pointed out that it was set up on the basis it would help prevent future lockdowns but since its creation there had been two more, and warned that the taxpayer could not be treated like an ‘ATM machine’.
The committee chose not to question the cost-effectiveness of the Government’s decision to create a centralised testing system, the Lighthouse laboratories, to undertake analysis of test samples – a parallel system which by-passed the existing decentralised network of NHS labs – though by last October there were reports of dangerous and chaotic working practices. A damning Panorama investigation was broadcast last month.
In February the Good Law Project won a High Court admission from government lawyers that it had breached the law by persistently failing to publish details of Covid-19 contracts. It has been less successful with forcing public disclosure over the Test and Trace scheme. Its Freedom of Information request for details of meetings held by the head of the scheme, Baroness Dido Harding, has been refused on ‘grounds of cost’ (that would be £600).
Baroness Harding, married to a senior Tory and granted her peerage by David Cameron in 2014, has a dubious management record: in the 2015 TalkTalk scandal 4million customers risked loss of privacy in spite of warnings to management of cyber security weaknesses. She has proved an even less safe pair of hands in her latest role.