Coronavirus: £100bn budget for Operation Moonshot dumped as project swallowed up by Dido Harding’s Test and Trace

Andrew Woodcock
·4 min read
Coronavirus testing at Heathrow Airport (LHR AIRPORTS LIMITED/AFP via Get)
Coronavirus testing at Heathrow Airport (LHR AIRPORTS LIMITED/AFP via Get)

Boris Johnson’s Operation Moonshot coronavirus scheme has been quietly swallowed up into the NHS Test and Trace system and the government has abandoned plans to spend £100bn on the ambitious plan for mass testing of millions of Britons, new papers have revealed.

The prime minister has presented Operation Moonshot as the key to allowing a return to normal life, by issuing freedom passes to people with negative results from 20-minute rapid-turnaround tests.

A leaked letter last month stated that 6 million tests were expected to be provided each day in a programme - believed to be driven by the PM’s top aide Dominic Cummings - which would “cost over £100bn to deliver” and that plans were already in place for 3 million by December.

But a letter from government lawyers has now revealed that the operation has been “subsumed” into the widely-criticised NHS Test and Trace programme led by Baroness Dido Harding, which is currently testing around 280,000 people a day with a target to increase the figure to 500,000 by the end of October.

And the legal letter states that the government has made no financial commitment to “anything approaching” the £100bn sum.

The admissions came in a legal letter responding to a bid by the Good Law Project to subject government spending on coronavirus contracts to judicial review.

The letter stated that a Department of Health briefing pack dating from August which set out plans for full rollout of 10m tests a day by early 2021 was no more than a “document designed to provoke discussion” and “did not and does not reflect an adopted policy”.

“There has been no ‘decision to approve and commit £100bn of public money to Project Moonshot’,” said the government lawyers. “Indeed… no financial commitment has been entered into approaching anything like that sum.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak committed around £500m of preliminary funding for new testing technologies in August and a further £1.5bn in September, said the letter.

But it added: “The proposal referred to in the Project Moonshot Briefing Pack was developed alongside the existing NHS Test and Trace programme of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). NHSTT’s approved ‘core’ budget was approximately £12.1bn.

“The substance of the proposal referred to in the Project Moonshot Briefing Pack has since been subsumed within NHSTT, reflecting the fast-moving and constantly evolving policy requirements in the field of testing. It has come to be referred to as part of NHSTT’s ‘mass testing’ programme.”

Barrister Jolyon Maugham of the Good Law Project said that the reality exposed in the lawyers’ letter was “a far cry from Boris Johnson’s grandstanding just a matter of weeks ago and more proof of the mess this government is making of the UK’s testing programme”.

Mr Maugham said: “The government’s grand plan to develop a rapid turnaround testing programme, has predictably fizzled out into a damp squib.

“But call it what you like – Operation Moonshot or Test and Trace – the government continues to refuse to answer some really rather basic questions we have been asking for some weeks about their plans for a mass testing programme.

“Why were contracts for this programme awarded without any advertisement or competitive tender process? Why did the Government fail to consult their own experts, the National Screening Committee over the plans for rapid testing? Will tests delivered by Operation Moonshot be free of charge, or will the public be forced to pay, as suggested by Dido Harding?

“Unless we get satisfactory answers we will, have no doubt, issue proceedings.”

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference in September, Mr Johnson voiced hopes that “new types of test which are simple, quick and scalable will become available” allowing test results to be delivered within 20 minutes to millions of people every day."

"We're hoping the Moonshot approach will work and we will be able to deliver mass testing which will give people the freedom pass, the 'laissez-passer', the knowledge that they are not infectious and can hang out with other people who are not infectious in a pre-Covid way,” he said.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “We continue to work tirelessly to make sure everyone who needs a test can get one, including by introducing new, highly reliable technology to allow us to test more people and deliver rapid results.

“NHS Test and Trace is the biggest testing system per head of population of all the major countries in Europe. Due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously.”

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