openDemocracyUK: News

Government faces ‘urgent’ calls to scrap England's Test and Trace scheme

Exclusive: With the original 12-month outsourced contracts due for renewal, Labour MPs and activists have demanded immediate end of contact-tracing scheme

caroline m.jpg
Caroline Molloy
26 April 2021, 4.35pm
Health secretary Matt Hancock faces fresh demands to end outsourced Test and Trace scheme
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Senior Labour frontbenchers have today written to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, demanding the government ends the outsourcing of COVID-19 contact tracing and redirects the money to local authorities.

In a letter seen by openDemocracy, Rachel Reeves, shadow Cabinet Office secretary, and Jon Ashworth, shadow health secretary, point out that “since the start of the pandemic, almost two million close contacts have been left untraced and uncontacted in England”. It also asks whether the government will “claw back some of the money from this clearly failed contract”.

The letter comes as the original contracts for a national contact-tracing call centre come up for renewal, openDemocracy understands. In the letter, Reeves and Ashworth say “it would be a grave mistake to continue with a flawed approach which has proved costly in every sense”.

Serco and SITEL were originally hired to provide national contact tracing for a sum of up to £720m if the contracts ran for a maximum of “up to 12 months”. The contracts, which were granted to the outsourcing giants without competition, started on 18 May 2020.

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The shadow ministers note that “for a sizeable amount of its contract, Serco, SITEL, and other companies in charge of contact tracing failed to reach the percentage of close contacts needed to curb the spread of infection”.

It would be a grave mistake to continue with a flawed approach which has proved costly in every sense

The government’s own scientific advisory group, SAGE, has said that for contact tracing to be effective it must reach 80% of close contacts with infected people, a figure the national service has regularly missed.

Reeves and Ashworth outline concerns about the spread of new variants causing future surges in infection and lockdowns, despite the roll-out of vaccinations. They urge Hancock to “halt the outsourcing of contact tracing in England to large private companies” and to “urgently lay out a clear and immediate plan for localising and integrating contact tracing”.

openDemocracy asked the Department of Health to confirm whether the contracts with Serco and SITEL for the national contact-tracing call centre would be extended beyond May 2021. It replied that it does “not comment on specific contracts” but that “all changed [sic] to contracts will be published in the usual way”.

There is no update to the original contract on the government’s websites.

Reeves told openDemocracy: "The government’s lack of transparency on contracts is deeply concerning – despite the sleaze consuming government, they refuse to even do the basics when it comes to transparency."

The performance of the outsourced national contact-tracing service, and the rest of the Test and Trace scheme has been subject to fierce criticism. The Public Accounts Committee of MPs found last month that despite “unimaginable” levels of spending, with £37bn allocated, the Test and Trace scheme had made no “measurable difference” on the spread of the virus.

Anthony Costello of Independent SAGE told openDemocracy, “The outsourced contracts to Serco, SITEL and Deloittes have failed.” He added that the whole methodology was flawed. “Call-centre contact tracing doesn’t work…[it] has not been used in countries that have successfully suppressed the pandemic. The UK has picked up only two contacts per case on average whereas Taiwan, for example, found 17… These contracts should not be renewed… The government should follow the evidence and implement a local system that works.”

The UK has picked up only two contacts per case on average whereas Taiwan, for example, found 17… These contracts should not be renewed

In August openDemocracy revealed that despite failing to reach sufficient contacts to halt the spread of the virus, the contract had been extended beyond the initial three-month trial period.

The government suggested at the time that it had listened and that the national call centres would be scaled back, with more contact-tracing carried out by public health officials in local areas, as is the case in many other countries that have more successfully suppressed the virus. But as openDemocracy reported, the government then “U-turned on the U-turn” and the proposed “local by default”, public system did not materialise.

Around 26 local councils are now piloting a ‘Local-0’ approach, where case details are passed directly to local authorities to reach contacts of infected people, rather than councils having to wait for the national call centres to try to contact them first. But these pilots are, Ashworth and Reeves say, “inadequate” in scope and “a year too late”.

In September openDemocracy reported that the contracts for contact tracing were awarded to Serco and SITEL without any provision for penalty clauses, and with terms that procurement experts called “astonishing” and “unethical”. In their letter to government today, Reeves and Ashworth ask for a “full breakdown” of the targets Serco and SITEL were set, and their performance against them.

Last year, Serco paid its shareholders a dividend for the first time since 2014 as its profits surged.

Campaign group WeOwnIt called on the government to “face reality”, telling openDemocracy that “Serco and co should be kicked out for good”. The campaigning group is running a day of action tomorrow.

Polling from Survation has found that 60% of the public believe the Test and Trace programme has gone badly. Survation has also found that two-thirds of the public believe that lives could have been saved if the government had made different decisions during the pandemic, and that three-quarters of the public believe the NHS has performed better during the pandemic than private companies.

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