A post on Facebook claims: “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.”
The Facebook post is a screenshot of a tweet, shared in March, which has amassed around 1,200 retweets.
NHS Test and Trace includes the app, but also covers testing services, ‘contain’ activities (including identifying local outbreaks and supporting local responses to the pandemic), and tracing services. NHS Test and Trace spent £13.5 billion up to April 2021, and its budget for that first year was £22.2 billion.
According to the National Audit Office, in 2020/21, £76 million was spent on the NHS Covid-19 app, but that also includes spending on NHSX’s initial effort to build an app-in house, which was abandoned in June 2020.
Is this the third most expensive project ever?
First of all, it’s hard to say how much infrastructure projects like the US system of highways or the International Space Station cost. While we’ve not looked in detail at the costs of either, estimates are in the hundreds of millions but vary, or can’t be verified as they’ve spanned decades and weren’t paid for by an individual funder.
There are certainly infrastructure works planned that will cost more. HS2 for example, the high-speed rail line planned between London and Manchester will cost an estimated £72 billion to £98 billion. And Test and Trace differs from these infrastructure projects, as it involves many different aspects of government spending, all related to the same broad overview of testing and tracing Covid-19 cases.
But we know there are a lot of UK government-funded areas that cost a lot more than £37 billion. For example, before the pandemic, planned spending for the Department of Health and Social Care in England, including salaries, medicines, buildings and equipment, was just over £150 billion in 2019/20.