Coronavirus: Plan to use private firm at centre of outsourcing scandal to run contact tracing attacked

Serco and other giant contractors likely to recruit 15,000 call centre staff - who could be given only one day’s training

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 04 May 2020 11:23 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

A plan to use a private firm at the centre of an outsourcing scandal to help run the ‘test-and-trace’ system crucial to curbing Covid-19 has drawn criticism.

Labour hit out at ministers after it emerged that Serco – and probably other giant contractors such as G4S – will carry out most of the contact tracing work, by recruiting 15,000 call centre staff.

They will be given only about one day’s training in the principles of contact tracing, The Times reported, stating Serco was in “advanced talks”.

Last year, the outsourcing giant was fined £19.2m by the Serious Fraud Office as part of a settlement over an electronic tagging scandal, also paying £3.7m in costs.

Both Serco and G4S were accused of charging the government for electronically monitoring people who were either dead, in jail, or had left the country.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “We don't believe that the government are recruiting enough contact tracers and nobody will think they should be in the hands of private companies seeking to make a profit.”

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has given very few details of the 18,000-strong workforce who will carry out the South Korean-style testing-and-tracing programme.

Nevertheless, he has promised it will start by the middle of May – a move crucial to hopes that the government will be able to start easing aspects of the lockdown from the end of the month.

Only around 3,000 of the recruits will be doctors and nurses from the pool of retired NHS staff who volunteered to return to help when the pandemic broke out.

Their work will be bolstered by the NHS smartphone app that will alert people if they have been near someone known to have coronavirus, which begins trials in the Isle of Wight this week.

However, experts have warned it will require aa daunting 60 per cent take-up to be successful, which means much of the work will have to be done by physically contacting suspected victims.

Mr Hancock has been accused of a “missed opportunity” by failing to sign up around 5,000 local council environmental health workers – and thousands more in the private sector, now furloughed in the shutdown.

They have years of tracing the victims of salmonella, Legionnaires’ disease and even norovirus, but Public Health England made no effort to deploy them earlier in the crisis.

Talks are now taking place with local councils, but it is still unclear what role their experts will play – if any.

Staff could be redeployed from benefits helplines, NHS 111 and other phone banks operated for the government, it is understood.

Expert contact tracers working for Public Health England will be used to deal with complex cases, including outbreaks in care homes and hospitals.

The Independent has asked the department for health and social care to respond to the criticism.

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