No, contact tracing doesn’t cost £10,000 per contact

13 November 2020
What was claimed

England’s test and trace service reaches contacts at a cost of approximately £10,000 each.

Our verdict

This is a misleading calculation based on the total cost of the test and trace service, which is mainly spent on testing and not tracing.

“Independent SAGE showed that 1 217 214 contacts have been reached by England’s NHS Test and Trace service since May at an approximate cost of £10 000 (€11 000; $13 000) per head so far, based on the government’s commitment to spend £12bn on a tracking system.”

On Monday, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported a claim from Independent SAGE—a group of experts set up to provide unofficial advice to the UK government during the pandemic. It said that the government was spending around £10,000 to trace each contact through the national test and trace operation. This was also reported in the Express.

The figure was calculated by dividing the £12 billion provision for Test and Trace, by the number of contacts of positive cases who had been reached in England as of 28 October

However, this is misleading, becausethe £12 billion is not spent exclusively, or even primarily, on tracing contacts of positive cases. Most of it is spent on testing, which is a necessary stage before the tracing can begin, but also has other uses in its own right, such as diagnosing people who are ill and identifying infected people who should self-isolate 

We have written about problems with these sorts of calculations before.

The BMJ article says at the bottom: “On 10 November we amended this story to make it clear that Serco is not the only private company involved in NHS Test and Trace and that the service covers more than just contact tracing.”

However the article still says that £12 billion is being spent on the “tracking system” specifically. 

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Where does the money go?

The head of Test and Trace, Dido Harding, said in a parliamentary select committee this week that around 80% of that £12 billion is spent on testing, with the remainder spent on tracing, technology and central support functions. 

Contact tracing in England comprises both national contact tracing carried out by Serco, Sitel and staff from NHS Professionals, and local contact tracing by Public Health England (PHE) local health teams. The local work is funded from a different budget, separate to the £12 billion.

This additional spending is important, because of the roughly 1.2 million total contacts reached as of 28 October, around 370,000 were reached by local health teams. 

We have asked the Department for Health and Social Care about this and will update this article if we receive a response. 

For the time being, we can’t say how much it cost to trace each contact in England, or the UK. However we can say that the calculation done by Independent SAGE is misleading.

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