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Privatised Test and Trace Is a Tory Mess

Instead of investing in public test and trace, the Tory government handed the system over to outsourcing giant Serco and a call centre company. Inevitably, it has failed to deliver.

At the start of this pandemic, we were promised a “world beating” test, track and trace system. The scale of the crisis demanded this.

But sadly our government, clinging doggedly to their deep rooted obsession with privatisation, gave us something very different. They created a convoluted, jumbled mess, opting to establish a parallel system to the public health experts and NHS services that have the experience of delivering contact tracing.

This parallel system – managed by notorious outsourcing giant Serco alongside call centre company Sitel – has been an unmitigated disaster. We’ve seen three separate data breaches involving personal data. We’ve seen inadequate training and shoddy supervision for contact tracers. And we’ve seen countless people working on the system telling us again and again just how badly it’s being mishandled – with one paramedic even saying “everything that could go wrong has.”

The result? A system falling well behind the government’s own targets to deliver a safe public health response to the pandemic. The SAGE committee has said that to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further, some 80% of all close contacts of symptomatic cases of Covid-19 need to be found and communicated with. And yet in Blackburn with Darwen, the privatised, nationally-run test and trace system has reached just 52%. No wonder only 15% of the public think private companies should be in charge.

Meanwhile, local public health teams – the ones with the actual experience of delivering this work – have been delivering. In spite of their battling a farcically fragmented system and underfunding, these publicly run teams are tracing far more people than Serco and Sitel’s national call centres on just £300 million of government support. The public sector is delivering the goods while the private sector pockets the cash.

Having dealt with the shambolic system for months, local authorities have started taking matters into their own hands. In July, Sandwell council started to set up its own contact tracing system in response to the failing privatised national model. Now, Blackburn with Darwen is following suit to plug gaps. And Oldham council leader Sean Fielding has branded the current set up a “recipe for disaster” as he called for the government to invest in local, reliable, publicly run track and trace.

We Own It is calling for all council leaders to follow Fielding’s lead. We’re asking them to request Matt Hancock funds local public health teams to deliver track and trace, and end the Serco run system.

The time for this is now. The current contracts the government holds with Serco and Sitel are due to end on August 23rd. According to those contracts, they could be renewed to the tune of £720 million.

Enough is enough. It’s time for the government to face reality. It’s time to scrap Serco and Sitel, and all private involvement in the track and trace system. And it’s time to properly resource the people who can deliver the track and trace system we so desperately need.

Local councils and their leaders can help by speaking out. They can help deliver a response to this pandemic that we can be proud of. And they can help ensure we get out of lockdown safely, see our families and hug our loved ones again.