A widely shared Facebook post compares the cost of the NHS Test and Trace programme with the cost of constructing the Channel Tunnel. It seems to be a screenshot of a post on Twitter from 14 February.
The post says that “the failing Test and Trace system cost £22bn in just a few months”, and “building the channel tunnel over 5 years cost £16bn in today’s money”.
It is possible that NHS Test and Trace in England will ultimately cost more than the construction of the Channel Tunnel. However we can’t say that Test and Trace has cost more so far.
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How much has Test and Trace cost?
The government has allocated a budget of £22 billion to NHS Test and Trace for its first year. This figure has been widely used before, so it may be what this post refers to.
The £22 billion covers the programme in England, and contributes some resources, such as Covid-19 test labs, to the other UK nations.
However, not all of this budget has been spent. Up to 31 October 2020, which covers roughly the first six months of Test and Trace, about £4 billion was spent, compared with the £6 billion that was expected.
We do not yet know how much has been spent since, or how much is likely to be spent in future. However, we do know that it did not spend £22 billion in a few months.
The Facebook post also says that Test and Trace is “failing”, despite its cost. This is a matter of opinion, which could be assessed in several ways. As we have written before, the specific effect of contact-tracing has been small, but it is hard to know how much the whole programme has actually reduced the spread of Covid.
Most of the cost of Test and Trace goes on testing, which also has other benefits. For instance, it helps to diagnose people who are ill, allows people who test negative to stop self-isolating, and generates data to inform government decisions.
How much did the Channel Tunnel cost?
According to the Eurostar website: “It took just under six years and 13,000 workers to build the Channel Tunnel. The total cost came at an eye-watering £4.65 billion which would be the equivalent of £12 billion in today's money.”
Other estimates at different times have shown a higher construction cost, of £9.5bn or £12bn. We are not sure exactly what these different figures represent, in terms of construction costs and subsequent debt payments, but both would rise if adjusted for inflation.
A cost of £16bn in 2016 prices is quoted on the Channel Tunnel Wikipedia page, which may be where the author of the Facebook post found that number.
In November, the journalist Ed Conway tweeted a comparison with the cost of Test and Trace, in which he said that the cost of the tunnel was “£9bn at the time, just under £20bn in today’s money”.
Which cost more?
At the time of writing, we don’t know whether the Channel Tunnel or NHS Test and Trace will prove to be more expensive.
The budget for the first year of Test and Trace is higher than most estimates for the cost of the tunnel, but we don’t yet know how much of it will be spent, or how much will be spent in future years.
It is therefore not correct to suggest that NHS Test and Trace has already spent more than the cost of building the Channel Tunnel.