“Treating taxpayers like an ATM machine”

Meme by the author

Most people seem to think that Dido Harding’s test and trace programme (NHST&T but nothing to do with the NHS) is a disaster. I won’t go into the reasons why; you can read some of it in the House of Commons committee report. Instead, let’s just look at the costs.

The government allocated a budget of £37bn for this programme. This is said to be around 20 per cent of the entire annual budget for the NHS. Think about it: one fifth of what the NHS gets. Try getting your head round what the NHS does – doctors, nurses, ancillary staff, buildings, equipment, drugs… then divide it by five and compare with NHST&T. It beggars belief.

Now here’s a thing. I can only assume that Dido Harding’s team is finding it difficult to spend all that money. Why do I say this? Because, according to latest figures reported in the Guardian, at least six weeks ago we were still paying consultants. You might think that 18 months after the programme was set up, we would be finished with consultants and just be employing operatives. You would be wrong. At the end of October, we still had 1,230 consultants on the payroll – and at an average daily rate of £1,100 this potentially equates to £1,353,000 a day.

It gets worse. The Guardian has carried out separate research, revealing that “in the last month the government has quietly published details of at least seven new NHS test-and-trace deals with private contractors, together worth more than £17m.” No wonder Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said that NHST&T was “treating taxpayers like an ATM machine”.

Surely this is against the law? Keep reading – there’s another big story here.

Fortunately for us there are some good people out there, people like Jolyon Maugham of the Good Law Project (GLP), people looking out for us. Jo Maugham, a barrister, founded GLP in 2017 and has been holding the government to account ever since. When you’ve finished reading this, you might want to take a look at their website. They have been successful in challenging the government over the awarding of Covid-related contracts without competitive tendering and with scant regard to value for the taxpayer. These successes have upset the Johnson government.

GLP is taking the government to court again (in the week beginning 13 December), challenging the appointment of Dido Harding and her colleague to run NHST&T without open competition. Such action is not taken lightly, especially as GLP is funded by donations, so they asked the government for an assessment of its probable costs in defending the action. Had the government quoted a figure beyond GLP’s budget then they would have applied for ‘a costs cap’, whereby a court order would cap their costs if they lost the case. The next part of this story smacks of vindictiveness. Here is the sequence of events:

  • In March 2021 the government advised that their estimated costs would be in the region of £35,000 to £50,000.
  • Since this was within budget, GLP did not apply for a cost cap.
  • Two months later the government advised their costs would be closer to £150,000.
  • A threefold increase! Nevertheless, still manageable, so GLP pressed on.
  • Now, some six months later, just weeks before the hearing and too late to apply for a cost cap, another government bombshell: their latest estimate is that their costs will be around £360,000.

This compares with GLP’s lawyer’s bill estimated at £70,000 if they lose, and £175,000 if they win. Oh – and don’t forget who foots the bill for government spending.

‘We’ll do whatever it takes’ is a favourite government soundbite. At a time when Johnson is seeking ways to weaken the judiciary, we should be very worried about quite how far they are prepared to go, using our money to bully those prepared to challenge government misuse of public funds. It’s a double insult, a double robbery.

Footnote: Good Law Project only exists thanks to donations from people across the UK. If you are concerned by this story and are in a position to support them, you can do so here.