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Test and disgrace: the UK’s bureaucratic Salt Bae moment

One of the world’s great rip-offs hit the UK last month. Nusr-Et Steakhouse, a chain run by the Instagram superstar and chef Nusret Gokce, otherwise known as Salt Bae, opened in Knightsbridge, charging £100 for a burger and £1,450 for a gold-leaf steak. Some reviewers have found the experience underwhelming. It’s a windfall tax on idiots. You’d never pay it.

But here’s the bad news. All of us in Britain have fallen for a greater gouging. We’ve paid an overpriced bill for continual disappointment. This is a kind of bureaucratic Salt Bae, or, as it’s officially known, the government’s coronavirus test and trace service. It spent £13.5bn in 2020/21, and has £15bn at its disposal for the current year. That totals about £1,000 per household. As of this February, test and trace was still paying around 2,500 consultants an average of £1,100 a day.

The service has produced something: free PCR tests and packs of lateral flows. But two parliamentary reports have now laid bare its expensive failings. Test and trace’s aim was to avoid more lockdowns, after the first one. As the science and health committees noted, “ultimately those lockdowns happened”.

First the scheme had too little capacity. Then it had too much. (“I’ve done my washing, I’ve done my ironing, I’ve got the cleanest house around,” one under-occupied tracer told the FT.) Then it didn’t foresee a back-to-school surge and ran short again.

Did that excess capacity at least allow fast tests? Nope. The government’s scientific advisers said the time between someone feeling symptoms and their contacts being reached (the cough-to-contact gap) should be 48-72 hours. For most of 2020 the median time was more than 100 hours. Even as of the end of this August, it was above target.

Much of the problem was structural. Local authorities, best placed to trace people, were sidelined. The health ministry built a new central structure, relying on external consultants, many of whom soon left. In February, at least one consultant was being paid £6,624 a day. Deloitte was given a contract for £145m, without tender, for five months’ work. Imagine having £145m and giving it to Deloitte. It’d be like cutting off your arm and offering it to an octopus.

Although one piece of modelling suggests test and trace reduced the spread of the virus, most of that effect came from assuming people isolated, which largely they did not, thanks to low sick pay. The vaccine rollout came to the rescue. Unlike test and trace, it was run by the NHS and used the network of GPs.

Private companies have lots to offer. But the optics worry me. Randox, a diagnostics group, received a £347m testing contract without a bidding process. It has paid senior Tory MP Owen Paterson more than £500,000 since 2015 to act as an adviser.

This week, the MPs’ committee on standards found Paterson had committed an “egregious” breach of parliamentary lobbying rules, with his pre-pandemic work with Randox and another company. He will be suspended from the House of Commons, only for 30 days and only if fellow MPs agree in a vote.

Unrelated to this, Paterson last year took part in a call with Randox and the then testing minister, James Bethell. The Good Law Project, a legal campaign group, wants to know which companies received test and trace contracts after being directed to a VIP lane by politicians. It has separately requested Bethell’s phone records, but the ex-minister has variously claimed his phone is lost, broken and lent to a relative.

Sigh. Even if we can’t stop official blunders, we could uphold basic standards. Instead, it’s possible almost no one will be punished — except perhaps any gold-leafed consultants who make the mistake of celebrating chez Salt Bae.

henry.mance@ft.com

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