Unite has joined the Labour Party and others in calling for outsourcing giant Serco’s contract for running track and trace services to be scrapped.
The call for the cancellation of the £108m contract up for renewal in a fortnight on August 23 came after it was revealed Serco has overseen multiple failures of its contact tracing services. Medical experts agree that a successful contract tracing programme will be vital in any efforts to contain the coronavirus and avoid a second wave.
Contact tracing, which has been effective in other countries in controlling the coronavirus pandemic, is the process of identifying, assessing and managing people who have been exposed to the virus in order to break the chains of transmission.
New figures show that Serco’s 10,000 contract tracers, which the firm has recruited, trained and managed, only managed to contact 2.4 people each. Overall, only 56 per cent of people who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus were reached by contact tracers managed by Serco, and another private firm Sitel.
Meanwhile, when local public health officials have managed their own contact tracing systems, they have been able to successful reach 98 per cent of close contacts.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth and shadow cabinet minister Rachel Reeves both wrote to the health secretary Matt Hancock, calling for the Serco contract to be scrapped and the money diverted to local public health teams.
“The stakes are too high to tolerate failure in either the operation or the design of this crucial public service,” the letter read.
“We have long argued that test and trace should be led by local areas, backed up by the resources and national support to make this happen.
“It is not too late to improve the system and put in place new, locally-led contact tracing measures.”
Meanwhile, shadow health minister Justin Madders tweeted today (August 11) an email from a Serco customer services director explaining how the firm first got involved in track and trace – the firm was reportedly contacted as far back as January by Public Health England (PHE).
Speaking to the PA news agency, Madders said, “Serious questions need to be answered about why Serco was asked as early as January to get involved in the Government’s response to the pandemic and whether adequate procurement processes were followed when Serco was later awarded the contract to oversee contact tracing.”
Calls for the Serco contract to be scrapped came as the government recently announced it would axe 6,000 contact tracers in favour of a more localised approach, which critics say has shown that even the government realises a national system run by outsourced firms is failing.
Unite has said local authorities should be given funding and support to carry out more effective systems of track and trace.
Unite national officer for local government Jim Kennedy said, “This foolhardy and expensive reliance on private sector companies by the Tory government to deliver a comprehensive ‘test and trace’ programme is just another example of a misguided outsourcing policy that includes the ignominious failure of G4S to provide adequate security for the 2012 Olympics.
“Local government has a proven history going back to the end of the 19th century for delivering public health initiatives to local communities – it is a scandal that it has been by-passed up to now in favour of controversial outscoring companies where shareholders’ profits trump the public good,” he added.
Calling for the “lucrative” Serco contract to be scrapped when the contract is up for renewal in a forthnight, Kennedy noted, “Ministers should not fork out millions of taxpayers’ money when the decision is due later this month. Serco has failed spectacularly to find and isolate coronavirus cases in sufficient numbers.
“While not suggesting any impropriety, it should be noted that the health minister Edward Argar worked as a Serco lobbyist before entering parliament and Serco CEO Rupert Soames is the brother of Tory grandee and former MP Sir Nicholas Soames,” he went on to say.
“Local government knows its communities and their diverse populations, and its trusted staff are well-suited to knocking on doors to talk to people about Covid-19 as opposed to workers in a remote call centre – and the results, according to the latest figures, are considerably better.
“Boris Johnson’s so-called pledge to have a ‘world beating test and trace’ system in place by June joins the promise of an ‘oven ready Brexit’ in the dustbin of empty rhetoric.”
By Hajera Blagg