Test and trace to be outsourced - to Amazon?

Unite slams continued private sector involvement in test and trace system

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Even as the current partly privatised testing regime is falling apart, the government hopes to involve the private sector even more in its test and trace system, it has been revealed.

The Telegraph has reported that a tender will be out next month for the so-called ‘end-to-end’ supply chain, where logistics firms, such as retail giant Amazon and logistics firm DHL, will compete for the tender.

The Telegraph highlighted that the Department of Health and Social Care has put out a notice calling for bidders for the future contract. The notice read, “In order to significantly scale up the number of daily tests as well as making the operations more efficient, we are looking for an end-to-end management of all associated supply chain and logistics processes along the chain.”

Government sources who spoke to the Telegraph said that they were looking for “experts in delivery services” and highlighted Amazon and DHL as possible contenders.

One source said, “At the moment, the management of NHS Test and Trace has been in-house but, as we go into winter, we need experts in this area to take it forward.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth was highly critical of the move, tweeting in response to the Telegraph revelations, “What?! For goodness sake, give it to public health and NHS to run!”

The latest revelations come as the UK’s test and trace system is at the brink of falling apart, with 90 per cent of Covid-19 tests failing to get results within the 24-hour target and a testing backlog rising to nearly 200,000 tests.

Earlier this week, UniteLIVE highlighted the serious concerns the biomedical science community has over privatised labs, known as Lighthouse Labs, overseeing community testing, where the bottleneck in testing is now occurring.

There has been a concerning lack of transparency over what, precisely is causing the backlog in testing by the privatised labs, with some speculating that the labs are short-staffed because they are mainly run by volunteer PhD students and post-docs who have since returned to university. Others believe that there is a shortage of the chemical reagents used in swabs to detect Covid-19.

A survey of Unite’s biomedical science members, who are accredited and fully qualified to carry out testing, said they feel NHS science facilities and resources have been underutilised in favour of private labs.

Of those surveyed, more than 85 per cent said they were concerned about the service quality from Lighthouse Labs and over 90 per cent said that there were worried about the transparency and contracting arrangements for these laboratories.

“We have been ignored in favour of private laboratory enterprise,” said one Unite biomedical scientist member who participated in the survey. “We cannot get hold of reagents as they are being directed to private labs first. We could have achieved the required testing capacity from day one as we have the staff.”

Unite lead officer for healthcare science Gary Owen said, “The government’s obsession with involving the private sector in the Covid-19 ‘trace and test’ regime has been shown to be flawed and misguided, as more and more people report difficulties in trying to get a test near to their home.

“If ministers have learnt any lessons from Covid-19 it should be that the NHS, with the right level of investment, is best placed to provide laboratory testing for such a global pandemic as we are currently going through.”

Shadow education secretary Kate Green agreed, as she highlighted earlier this week why it was vital to involve the NHS more in testing.

“Clearly it’s been a mistake to privatise out to labs that clearly haven’t got the staffing to manage the number of tests coming in,” she said. “So let’s make sure that we’re making maximum use of the capacity that is available including in the NHS and building up capacity as quickly as possible.”

By Hajera Blagg

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