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Revealed: Travel agent staff running COVID-19 track and trace

Customer service centre staff at Hays Travel have been working on Serco's heavily criticised track and trace operations after pitching for government work in March

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan David Conn
9 August 2020, 7.47am
Holiday helpline?
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Lewis Stickley/PA Archive/PA Images

Aspects of the British government’s COVID-19 contact-tracing operation has been run by customer service centre staff at Hays Travel, the holidays agency that took over Thomas Cook last year, openDemocracy and the Observer can reveal.

The Sunderland-based company, owned and run by the married couple John and Irene Hays, pitched for work on the coronavirus response in March, a spokeswoman confirmed, as the virus was spreading and the travel industry was plunged into crisis. The spokeswoman said that Hays Travel does not have a contract directly with the government, but has been subcontracted by two providers, whom she said the company could not name due to client confidentiality.

Serco, the logistics company believed to have the largest private contract with the government for Covid-19 contact tracing, confirmed that it has subcontracted Hays Travel to do some of the work, and more companies from the travel sector and other industries. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care also confirmed that: “Hays Travel has been subcontracted by Serco to provide support for NHS Test and Trace. Hays Travel was also subcontracted by Teleperformance [a French call centre “customer experience” corporation] to provide limited support for FCO travel advice at the height of the pandemic and also some support for the 119 [testing contact centre] service.”

A Hays Travel internal memo telling staff the company had secured the contract to do contact tracing, seen by openDemocracy and the Observer, explained to employees:

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“This is to help to call people who may have been in contact with someone who has the coronavirus. We need to recruit a significant number of people really quickly.”

The company told staff it would like to employ “people who are recommended by you, friends, family or previous colleagues – people who you think would do the job really well and look after the Hays Travel brand for us all”.

The memo said people recruited to do contact tracing would undergo “about four hours’ Webex training” online, and be able to start work on the same day. The company spokeswoman said that, in fact, for tier 3 contact tracing, which involves initial calls to people who have tested positive and the contacts they give, nine hours’ training is provided.

Neither Serco nor Hays Travel gave details of the size or value of the subcontract for the contact-tracing operation. Hays this week announced almost 900 redundancies, saying that the government’s requirement for returnees from Spain to go into 14-day quarantine had severely affected its holiday business.

There has been intense scrutiny and criticism of the national operation to trace and talk to people who may have had close contact with those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, particularly for the limited numbers of people it is reaching and encouraging to self-isolate. Experts, including David McCoy, professor of global public health at Queen Mary University of London, have criticised the outsourcing to private companies such as Serco and the limited training given to call centre staff, and called for experienced local public health teams to have greater responsibility for overseeing the management of contact tracing. Blackburn with Darwen council, the local authority with the country’s highest infection rate, has set up its own contact-tracing system due to frustrations with the national programme.

McCoy said it was “ludicrous” to have a travel agency tracing contacts of Covid-19 sufferers, and said the minimal training provided was “hopelessly inadequate”.

“Talking to people who may be carrying Covid-19 and encouraging them to self-isolate is skilled work and should ideally be done by people with knowledge and experience of public health, and legitimacy to be listened to,” he said. “It makes no sense to have the work done by a travel agency in a call centre disconnected from the public health system. The private outsourcing is taking resources away from strengthening the public health front line, where capacity needs to be developed.”

The Hays Travel spokeswoman responded to criticism about the limited training by saying: “Training was provided as required by the client [Serco] by our highly skilled training academy.”

She said that as a travel company, Hays is “highly skilled in dealing with people with complex requirements”, and that: “Our call handlers meet the high standards required by our client at the level at which they operate.”

She said the idea to seek contact-tracing work initially came from an employee, in response to the downturn in work at Hays as the virus spread and demand for holidays plummeted. Senior managers at the company approached a particular service centre that had been contracted to work on the response to the coronavirus but did not have enough skilled staff.

“Back in March, in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we could see our industry facing crisis and we decided to be very proactive in trying to secure work for our people – many of them did not qualify for the furlough scheme,” the spokeswoman explained. “They are quality people and we wanted to find work for them to do.”

A Serco representative said the company does not disclose profits made on individual contracts but that “the work that we are doing to support governments on Covid-related work is at lower margins than our normal work.”

The DHSC spokesperson said: “As the public would expect, we are doing everything we can to respond to this unprecedented global pandemic – this includes working with public and private sector partners where necessary.

“All contact tracers and call handlers receive appropriate training and follow detailed procedures and scripts.”

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