Government tapped fleet of £1,300-a-day AWS consultants to advise on contact-tracing app

Written by Sam Trendall on 5 February 2021 in News

Procurement documents show more than £300,000 spent across 234 billable days

Credit: Kris Tripplaar/SIPA USA/PA Images

During the early months of the pandemic, government called in a squad of high-end consultants from AWS Professional Services to advise on the project to build a contact-tracing app.

Newly release transparency documents reveal that Public Health England last year awarded a contract worth £313,262 to the AWS advisory division. The deal, which covered a range of “consulting and advisory services”, came into effect on 12 May 2020.

Documents show that the cloud consultancy outfit was contracted to provide work equating to a total of 234 billable working days across 10 job different roles. 

PHE required 48 days of developer expertise, and 24 in each of the following areas: delivery management; lead architect; product or service design lead; tester; web ops consultant; user researcher; and interaction designer.

The government agency also tasked the company with providing 10 billable days of work from AWS cloud consultants and eight from cybersecurity consultants.

The cost of each role was redacted from the published documents, but the total money spent via the contract means that the average across all 10 disciplines is about £1,340 per day per person.

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The procurement info indicates that, during an initial phase, PHE required advice across the following areas of AWS infrastructure: networking; compute; security; storage; database; and monitoring. Support was also sought on integrating with the GOV.UK Notify messaging platform.

The cloud firm’s experts were expected to offer “support with current deployment configuration” and help with data “ingestion and extraction” for further “app development” work.

Moving into a second phase, PHE contracted AWS to advise on “options to improve the architecture and extend to include new functionality to include testing and security”.

Consultants were also expected to lend their expertise to an “assessment of work to date around user research, service design, and interaction design”, as well as offering the “identification of gaps and suggested areas of improvement” and advising on how to “build out future milestones to enhance the service”.

The contract came into effect shortly after the government’s NHSX-developed centralised app had gone into a public testing phase, during which residents across the Isle of Wight were invited to download and trial the technology.

This exercise ultimately demonstrated that the technology worked only patchily on Android devices and hardly at all on iPhones. The app – on which more than £12m was spent in external contracts across three months of work – was scrapped on 18 June, and the UK then followed many other countries in deciding to adopt the Exposure Notification technology jointly developed by Apple and Google.

The NHS Covid-19 App based on this system finally launched nationwide on 25 September.

In a statement issued to PublicTechnology concerning the AWS deal, a PHE spokesperson said that “it is long-established practice to draw on the advice of external specialists via contracts such as these”.   

“We always ensure value for taxpayers and use good commercial judgement when contracting external suppliers by following public sector procurement guidelines,” they added. “This is completely in line with procurement regulations for exceptional circumstances, where being able to procure at speed has been critical in the response to Covid-19.”


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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