We have previously examined the many COVID-19 related disasters and the Westminster mismanagement that has been thrown into sharp focus by the pandemic. From mass PPE shortages to a multi-billion-pound app that failed, it is clear that an independent Scotland could have managed this crisis more effectively than has been possible as part of the UK.
Throughout the pandemic the Scottish government has acted independently, often diverting from a four-nations approach, and this has brought many benefits. One of these has been Scotland's own test and trace app, which has been a significant success overall, and has proved much cheaper than the UK alternative. This article will investigate exactly how much cheaper and will compare the English, Irish and Scottish test and trace systems.
The UK government initially decided to develop its own NHS test and trace app, but after its app was tested in the Isle of Wight last June, it was discovered that it only recognised approximately 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Google Android devices.
This failed app and the consequent U-turn to replace it with an alternative designed by Apple and Google has been extremely costly for the UK government. In September it was recognised that the first stage of development of the test and trace app cost roughly £11m and the second phase and running costs for the first year are expected to cost a further £25m.
Until the end of October 2020, total spending on test and trace in England was £4bn. This works out at approximately £71.06 per head of population. However, this figure excludes the 407 contracts that were signed for test and trace supplies, services and infrastructure by the end of October 2020. These contracts, with 217 public and private organisations, were worth a further £7bn.
The existing costs and the proposed budget for England’s NHS Test and Trace system is significantly higher than Scotland’s and those of other countries worldwide
Furthermore, if we look beyond October 2020, when the test and trace system was still fairly new, it is clear that the UK government intended to and is likely to have spent a significant amount more. Indeed, the initial budget for test and trace 2020-21 in England was £22bn. Since then, a further £15bn has been allocated to the budget, totalling £37bn over two years. These budgets are the equivalent of £390.85 and £657.35 per head of population.
The existing costs and the proposed budget for England’s NHS Test and Trace system is significantly higher than Scotland’s and those of other countries worldwide. The Department of Health and Social Care justified this enormous investment on the basis that the test and trace system would be hugely effective and help to avoid a second national lockdown. Since then we have faced not only a second lockdown but also a third.
Ireland, a small independent country with a similar population size to Scotland, was ahead of the UK in releasing its test and trace scheme, with its app launching at the beginning of July last year. The app itself has proved cheap and successful, costing approximately £773,000 to develop.
Total spending on COVID-19 test and tracing Ireland in 2020 was €280.48 million (£239m). This works out at approximately £48.70 per head of population. This is significantly less than the costs incurred by the UK government and covers the entire year of 2020, rather than just until the end of October. Furthermore, the Irish government launched the scheme earlier than the UK and it has been more effective overall, avoiding any need to replace it with an alternative and the resultant additional costs.
The Scottish government launched the Protect Scotland test and trace app in September 2020. Scotland was initially working alongside the NHSX England app team but in July decided to instead develop its own version of the app using the same software as Ireland. It has been suggested that the overall cost of the technical development of the Scottish app was less than £300,000.
The total cost of test and trace in Scotland remained approximately 4.3 times lower than England's
The Scottish Government announced last November that the total spending on the test and trace scheme was £89.3m. This works out at approximately £16.35 per head of population. This figure is dramatically lower than the costs in England, and even in Ireland. Although these figures were published about a month later than England’s, the total cost of test and trace in Scotland remained approximately 4.3 times lower than England's.
Our examination has shown that test and trace was a key failing of the Westminster government during this pandemic and demonstrated the clear ability of small, independent countries to work better during such a crisis. The Irish government launched a very successful and cheap test and trace app that was welcomed by the Irish public. Meanwhile, Scotland took an alternative route from the rest of the UK and that has proved far cheaper and more effective. The UK government wasted millions on its first attempt to develop an app and has set an extremely high budget for the following year, despite failing to offer the promised “world beating” system. Overall, it is clear that an independent Scotland would have dealt more effectively, not only with the development of a test and trace system but with the pandemic as a whole.