UK Test and Trace chief Dido Harding tries to convince MPs that £14m for canned mobile app was money well spent

Not like every expert didn't warn it. Also: Queen of Carnage confirms consultants were paid average of £1.1k a day


Baroness Harding, head of the UK's NHS Test and Trace programme, has defended the money spent on the app it scrapped in June last year, saying £14m was not wasted.

One plank of the response to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Test and Trace, built its own app based on a centralised database of contacts, an approach that attracted a great deal of criticism, including here at The Register.

Following the June decision to abandon the technology, it took the decentralised approach to contact tracing advocated by infosec experts, based on technology developed by Apple and Google.

The spending for the app mushroomed from the £26m in the budget to £43m, according to a report [PDF] from spending watchdog the National Audit Office.

Speaking to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, Dido Harding, former chief executive at TalkTalk whose tenure saw one of the biggest information security breaches in UK corporate history, said the £14m spent on the central database approach was not wasted.

"Because of the work that we did with it, we were able to develop – together with Google and Apple – a much more effective algorithm, and Google and Apple have both recognised that."

Barely holding back a cynical laugh, former programmer Dawn Butler, a Labour MP on the committee, pointed out that Google and Apple had been helping build contact-tracing apps around the world long before they'd begun working on the app for England and Wales, and had publicly stated (as The Reg pointed out at the time) that they would not support the centralised database model.

But ours has the QR code too!

Nonetheless, Harding pressed on. "For the record, Google and Apple didn't start working on their API until after we had started our own work. They have been on the record as saying that the UK app, combining both contract tracing and [QR code] venue check-in, is a world first," she said.

Harding's appearance in Parliament coincided with bleak COVID-19 statistics for the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed a total death toll of 117,000 as of 22 January. The second wave has been deadlier than the first, with 57,701 between last spring and the end of August and 59,677 since then, according to death certificates citing COVID-19.

Contact tracing

Health Sec Hancock says UK will use Apple-Google API for virus contact-tracing app after all (even though Apple were right rotters)

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The committee's chairman, Conservative MP Greg Clark, pressed Harding on the Test and Trace system's failure to mitigate a second wave and national lockdowns. He pointed out that the business case for spending £15bn on Test and Trace was the avoidance of a second national lockdown and the associated economic and social costs that come with it.

Harding responded: "We've delivered each and every one of the objectives that [were] set by [independent science advisory group] Sage. It is impossible for Test and Trace to single-handedly fight the disease: it is always going to be one element of our fight against COVID and it is not a silver bullet."

The total spending on NHS Test and Trace is expected to be £22bn, with £7bn yet to be allocated.

MPs also probed spending on consultants by the Test and Trace system, which a Parliamentary answer published in January revealed had reached £375m, covering 2,300 individuals working for 73 suppliers.

Harding said the organisation established its service in nine months and a lot of the roles involved were not permanent. It would have been slower to recruit permanent staff and more costly in the long term, she argued.

A lot of the positions were "quite technical [in addressing] operational processes and systems design as we build the services" and many were no longer needed once the systems were completed, or would be transferred to the civil service as maintenance roles, she said.

Harding confirmed that the average spending per consultant was £1,100 per day. ®

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