Harding: cutting test and trace consultant numbers ‘subject to future demand’

Dido Harding says consultants are "scaling down" work on NHS Test and Trace, but won't commit to longer-term cuts
Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

NHS Test and Trace has begun “scaling down” its use of consultants as officials work on planning for the National Institute for Health Protection, Dido Harding has said – but she has indicated the use of consultancy firms could continue long term.

In a letter to MPs, which confirmed some consultants had been paid as much as £6,624 a day to work on NHS Test and Trace, Baroness Harding said now that “much of the build phase”  is complete, consultancies were beginning to wind up their work. 

She said 650 civil servants had been brought onto the programme over the last six months – 300 of whom were external hires. The rest were hires, secondments and loans from other departments.

“Further civil servant recruitment continues, where required, to support changes in consultancy use,” she told the Public Accounts Committee.

But despite officials' earlier promises to “reduce markedly” the number of consultants working on test and trace, Harding hinted that the organisation and its successor, the NIHP, could continue to rely on a significant number of consultants to some extent.

As of last month, there were around 900 Deloitte consultants working on NHS Test and Trace. Department of Health and Social Care second permanent secretary David Williams told the committee in January that there was a “plan in place with them to see that number reduce markedly over the course of the next few months”.

Harding’s letter indicated that the plan to reduce DHSC’s spending on consultants for test and trace was underway. However, she added: “It is important to bear in mind that further progress is subject to changes in demand placed on test and trace as well as future NIHP decisions.”

The NIHP,  which Harding will lead, will bring together the existing test and trace service, the “talent and science infrastructure” of Public Health England and the work of the Joint Biosecurity Centre, health secretary Matt Hancock announced in August. It will aim to protect the UK from threats including infectious diseases and biological weapons.

High levels of spending on consultants to support NHS Test and Trace and other programmes during the coronavirus pandemic has attracted much criticism. Last year CSW revealed the consulting giant McKinsey & Company – where Harding started her career – was being paid £563,400 for several weeks of work to help define the “vision, purpose and narrative” of a permanent organisation to manage the coronavirus test and trace programme.

In her letter to PAC, Harding confirmed that consultants working on test and trace have been paid an average of £1,100 a day, Baroness Harding told MPs – with the highest daily rate hitting £6,624.

In October, Sky News reported that Boston Consulting Group had been paid around £10m for a team of about 40 consultants to do four months’ work over the summer – averaging out at nearly £7,000 a day. Harding’s letter confirms for the first time the top rates paid to individuals.

But Harding insisted DHSC had negotiated "very competitive rates" for external help during the pandemic.

“This has been in response to a national crisis, requiring work to be carried out at breakneck speed with suppliers supporting the most critical requirements,” the letter, dated 11 February but published yesterday, read.

Harding said consultants’ specialist skills had enhanced the “strategic, policy and operational capacity” of test and trace, enabling it to reach more people and help curb the spread of Covid-19.

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