Global IT consultancies Accenture and Deloitte have scooped up nearly £94m in contracts from the UK public health agency after it took charge of the Test and Trace COVID-19 response.
The government has repeatedly committed to reducing its reliance on external consultants in the £37bn Test and Trace efforts amid criticism from MPs and the National Audit Office, an independent public spending watchdog.
The promises have not deterred the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the body which replaced Public Health England (PHE), from embarking on a new round of contract awards as it takes responsibility for the Test and Trace service from the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC).
In recently published contract award notices, it announced Deloitte had won up to £36.9m for domestic contact tracing and enquiries, including work for business analysis and service design, technical design and solution build. The contract started in October and is set to end in April 2025. It also won a role as Test and Trace Delivery Partners worth up to £30.3m over the same period.
Accenture was handed a contract worth up to £25.4m to be a delivery partner for Trace, Contain and real-time technology services (RTTS), a role which includes business analysis and technical builds. It also won work for borders and international and for Contain's CRM delivery in a deal worth up to £18.5m. Both are expected to run until April 2025. (For those who are wondering, Contain is a pillar of the larger Test & Trace strategy: Test, Trace, Contain and Enable.)
The contract award came as The Guardian revealed Test and Trace is still spending well in excess of £1m a day on private consultants, according to official figures. They show that at the end of October, Test and Trace employed 1,230 consultants on an average day rate of £1,100.
According to a report by Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) released in October, the DHSC had assured MPs that it planned to reduce the Test and Trace service's use of external consultants, "but that this was dependent on the availability of civil service recruits to fill posts and on future demand for test and trace services."
The service employed more consultants in April 2021 (2,239) than in December 2020 (2,164), the report said.
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Dido Harding, head of the service at the time, had explained to the committee that up to the end of May 2021, 196 (or 37 per cent) of the 523 recruitment campaigns it ran had failed to appoint anyone "because the skills NHST&T was trying to recruit for, in data, digital, and operational and project delivery roles, were in short supply in the civil service."
Formed in May 2020, the NHS Test and Trace Service (NHST&T), was created as a central government initiative, outside established NHS public health organisations, including Public Health England. After PHE was replaced with the UK Health Security Agency, the Test and Trace service came within its remit.
In June, a Parliamentary written answer revealed that the Test and Trace programme had hired more than 2,300 consultants and contractors working for 73 different suppliers at a total cost of approximately £375m.
Also in June, Serco was awarded a £322m contract to continue its work on the COVID-19 Test and Trace system in England and Northern Ireland. The outsourcing giant said the new contract had been awarded after a competitive process run by DHSC and the Crown Commercial Service.
In a statement, a UKHSA spokesperson said: "We are working to reduce the number of consultants in a constructive and planned way without having a detrimental effect on our health protection services which we need to change over the course of the pandemic.
"A number of roles require highly sought after specialisms in competitive market places and we have employed consultants to help deliver these vital services. We have significantly reduced the consultant workforce in many areas while responding to the unprecedented demands created by COVID-19. We are seeking to build a strong team of expert and generalist civil servants and always recruit to the civil service wherever we can."
In February, Harding justified the use of consultants in establishing the service. A lot of the positions were "quite technical [in addressing] operational processes and systems design as we build the services". She added that many were no longer needed after the systems were completed, or would be transferred to the civil service as maintenance roles, she said.
In October this year, the PAC released a report criticising government performance on Test and Trace, saying it failed to meet its objectives of mitigating the pandemic. ®