The NHS Test and Trace app was not the third most expensive project in history

19 March 2024
What was claimed

The NHS “Track & Trace” app cost £37 billion.

Our verdict

False. This figure is the total budget for the first two years of the entire NHS Test and Trace programme. The NHS Covid-19 app itself is estimated to have cost £35 million in its first year.

A post claiming the NHS “Track & Trace” app was the third most expensive project in history has been recirculating on Facebook in recent days.

It reads: “There are only TWO projects in history that have cost more than the Track & Trace app: the ISS (£72bn) and the entire US road network (£82bn).

“So there we we [sic] have it: at £37 billion, the third most expensive thing we've ever spaffed money on is a broken version of Pokemon Go.”

As we wrote when the post was shared back in 2021, this isn’t true. 

We’ve written several fact checks over the past few years about inaccurate claims regarding the cost of the NHS Covid-19 app (often referred to as the “Test and Trace” or sometimes the “Track and Trace” app).

The £37 billion figure is the total budget for the first two years of the NHS Test and Trace programme. While the NHS Covid-19 app was part of this programme, it only accounted for a fraction of spending.

The National Audit Office estimates that the lifetime cost of the entire Test and Trace programme was £29.3 billion, with most of the cost spent on testing people for Covid-19.

The app itself is estimated to have cost £35 million in 2020/21. The NAO says it does not hold information about the cost of the app in 2021/22.

Full Fact submitted a Freedom of Information request last year to establish the final cost of the Covid-19 app, but the UK Health Security Agency told us it could not give the exact cost for the app specifically.

It said: “Spending on the NHS Covid-19 app was spread across a number of government departments and organisations; which departments and organisations were involved varied at different points in time. Staff working on the app often worked on multiple projects or products, and contracts were set up to support numerous activities rather than just the app. It is therefore not possible to establish the true cost of spending on the app alone, disaggregated from spending on other workstreams.

“You may find it of interest to know that the Covid-19 App was brought forward to UKHSA on 1 October 2021 as a capital asset of £5,882,727. The total direct costs on the app for UKHSA between 1 October 2021 and March 2023 were £5,577,014.”

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“Most expensive” projects in history

As we’ve said previously, it’s hard to put an accurate figure on the cost of some of the largest major infrastructure projects. Although estimates for the cost of the International Space Station and the US highway and interstate system often give figures in the hundreds of billions, they vary depending on the source (and it’s worth noting these costs were carried over several decades, with the International Space Station funding spread across a number of different countries). 

The UK government has also undertaken major infrastructure projects estimated to cost more than the Test and Trace programme—its High Speed 2 rail programme, for example, was, according to one forecast, likely to cost upwards of £100 billion prior to its reduction in scope, and is now estimated to cost between £35 and £45 billion (at 2019 prices).

Cost figures like these also often don’t take into account the economic value of these projects.

Image courtesy of John Cameron

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