Government Moonshot programme will cost UK over £100 billion

21 September 2020 4 min. read

The UK Government has drawn up plans to carry out up to 10 million covid-19 tests a day by early next year as part of a huge expansion of its national testing programme. The work to deliver Project Moonshot has been divided up among a number of private entities, including consultancies Boston Consulting Group and Deloitte.

Moonshot thinking is defined as aiming to achieve something that is generally believed to be impossible. While in a less public forum, it might be an effective way to motivate teams to think big by framing problems as solvable and encouraging “anything is possible” dialogues, the UK Government’s use of the term to frame its new Covid-19 testing plan has caused consternation among high-ranking officials.

With the Government having already struggled to meet a self-imposed target of testing 100,000 people per day for coronavirus by the end of April – and eventually ‘meeting’ that target by including mailed out tests that had not been completed in its figures – Boris Johnson’s assertion that the UK will test 10 million people a day by January 2021 seems like just another arbitrary large number, rather than a well-planned big target. As reported by The Guardian, key government advisor Sir John Bell even warned Johnson not to describe his mass coronavirus testing plan as a “moonshot,” and against setting the 10 million target.

Government Moonshot programme will cost UK over £100 billion

Despite a barrage of criticism and other Government figures playing down the huge figure, however, the target remains in place, with billions reportedly put aside to boost the roll out of the wider testing efforts. This includes testing huge swathes of the population regularly, either using new swab tests that deliver results in 20 minutes, and do not have to be sent to a laboratory, or self-administered saliva tests. In order to manage the scaling of the massive project, the Government has tapped consultants to help prepare a plan.

Documents on the Moonshot programme prepared by consultants Boston Consulting Group for the Government, suggested it could carry out 2 to 4 million daily tests by December, followed by a more ambitious rollout of “up to 10 million” tests per day from January. The papers were obtained by the British Medical Journal, who also reported separate briefing notes for senior Scottish ministers and officials suggesting that the UK programme could cost £100 billion a year, close to the entire NHS budget of around £130 billion. 

Another report, this time with online news platform openDemocracy, meanwhile suggested that alongside G4S, Serco, Boots, Sainsbury’s, AstraZeneca, GSK and Smith and Nephew, Big Four firm Deloitte had also been paid by the Government for helping design Project Moonshot. One senior informed openDemocracy that Deloitte – which also had a role in the Government’s earlier attempts to ramp up testing – was being given the contract to deliver more than half of the work, which they also described as “crazy,” having “double-checked the figures" Moonshot was aiming for.

In August, it emerged the industry had received contracts worth £56 million to help with the national response to the coronavirus. Deloitte, Cambridge Consultants and PwC took the three largest fees, pocketing some £23 million between them. It is not surprising then that the news of private consultancies once again being handed public funds to implement the Government’s response to Covid-19 has drawn criticism from opposition figures.

Labour MP Clive Lewis dubbed the deal as “potentially the biggest NHS privatisation in history.” Questioning why the work could not be given to the NHS to do in-house, Lewis added, “It’s too easy to get the impression that this Government will hand out contracts to whoever happens to be mates with the right minister.”

Elsewhere, the Good Law Project has commenced legal proceedings against the Government, alleging that the Moonshot plans ignore scientific evidence and break value-for-money rules. A pre-action letter sent to the Government’s lawyers cited concerns that ministers were effectively “punting unprecedented sums of public money on technology that does not exist,” while the possibility of the programme generating large numbers of false positives risks was said to pose “personal and economic harm to tens of thousands of people.”