The government’s test and trace service is “panicking” in a rush to fill thousands of vacant contact tracing positions – just months after making thousands of clinical staff redundant – amid fears a summer wave of coronavirus will see a 100,000 infections a day.
The Independent understands the private companies running the service, Serco and Sitel, have been asked to recruit up to 7,000 new call-centre staff to speak to patients who have tested positive for Covid-19.
Under the plans, the new recruits will have no clinical training and be paid at substantially cheaper rates than the nurses and other clinical staff who were made redundant en masse in May as test and trace bosses said demand on the service had reduced.
Another 8,000 contact tracing staff were let go with just one week’s notice in March, as the service cut its workforce from 22,000 to 14,000 after the January surge had passed.
The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed it was now recruiting staff again to meet the increase in infections being seen across the country.
Under changes to the system, people who test positive will have four hours to enter their details online, including people they have been in contact with, before the cases are passed to the national service or in some cases to local public health teams.
Removing clinicians from contact tracing will save Sitel substantial amounts of money. Clinical contact tracers earn £17 an hour for a four-hour shift during the week and can earn up to £27 at weekends. This compares to between £6.56 and £9.99 for non-clinical staff, based on adverts posted online.
Jamey Johnson, director of operations for NHS Test and Trace, told a webinar of local authority tracing teams that modelling for the Department of Health and Social Care suggested case rates could hit 60,000 by the end of July, rising further to 100,000 later this summer.
Health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed the numbers this week and said the government was braced for more infections and deaths. But he argued the key indicators now were hospitalisations and deaths, which were lower as a proportion of infections, thanks to the vaccine rollout.
In parliament on Tuesday, he announced plans to end the requirements to self-isolate for those who had both doses of the vaccine by 16 August. Education secretary Gavin Williamson also told MPs school bubbles for children would be ending then as well, with contact tracing transferred to test and trace.
One test and trace source, who attended the 25 June webinar, told The Independent: “They are panicking because the modelling shows numbers escalating rapidly and they don’t think there is capacity in the trace system now.”
Many local authorities have taken on more of the contact tracing work but are struggling to cope already with the volume, with many calls ending up back with the national system.
The source added: “Many of those [local authorities] who had said yes to immediate case load delivery wanted to withdraw when they saw the numbers.
“It was asked by one person – why not bring back ready trained clinical people so they can hit the ground running? ‘Not willing to pay clinical rates’ was the response.”
There are around 300 clinically trained staff working for test and trace as team leaders or handling international cases and those involving variants of concern.
These team leaders have been made responsible for any clinical issues, with calls handled by the non-clinical staff, but can only respond when issues are raised by the call handlers themselves. One team leader said it was already getting busier for those staff as case rates continued rising.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said: “The news that from 16 August, those who are fully vaccinated will no longer need to self-isolate after having contact with someone with Covid-19 may act as an incentive for people to have both jabs.
“But we must also remember that no vaccine is 100 per cent effective, which means that to reduce transmission, the test and trace programme must also be absolutely watertight.
“We will need to rely on it more heavily than ever as social contact restrictions end, which means providing as much support as necessary to both the health service and to local authorities, as well as making sure the system is fully staffed in order to reach as many people as possible.”
She added: “It’s also vital that people continue to get tested and isolate if they have Covid, and that they are given enough financial support to be able to do so. Isolating remains the critical step to halt transmission. If the health secretary’s warning that we could see 100,000 Covid cases a day this summer comes to pass, it will tell us that our test and trace system has failed.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “For our operations to meet fluctuations in demand it is standard practice for us to respond in a way that reflects the number of cases.
“As we decreased the number of people working in the trace service over the spring, we are now responding to increases we have seen this summer, while acknowledging that vaccines have weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations.”
They added: “We have been working closely with local tracing partnerships to ensure a seamless transition and huge thanks and appreciation go to everyone involved in supporting and delivering this essential service.”
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