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To Save Lives, It’s Time to Scrap Serco

The government's decision to hand England's test-and-trace system over to Serco has been an unmitigated disaster. As millions suffer the consequences, it's time they're removed from our public health system for good.

2020 has been a year like no other, and millions will be spending Christmas in ways that would have been unimaginable just ten months ago. The new restrictions imposed only days before people were expecting to finally see their loved ones were sadly necessary, but they weren’t inevitable. Instead, they are a direct result of the government’s never-ending failure to get a grip on coronavirus.

There is no single villain in this story. Of course, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock’s incompetence has played its part; but so too have the people they decided to put in charge of managing the pandemic response. Because this government consistently prioritised ideology over good sense, one of the Grinches who stole our Christmas is the notorious outsourcing giant Serco.

Serco has been one of two companies—along with call centre firm Sitel—at the helm of the privatised national contact tracing system. Its prominence isn’t surprising: Serco has long held massive contracts to run vital portions of Britain’s dilapidated public services. For decades, you’ll have found the company managing prisons, immigration detention centres, health services, railway lines, and airports.

Serco has also been contracted to deliver waste management, telephone advice for benefit claimants, cleaning, and Ofsted inspections for schools. Where you might expect to find the state fulfilling its basic functions—public health, welfare provision, education and so on—instead you find Serco.

Sadly—and despite the oft repeated nonsense of private sector efficiency—you also find a trail of catastrophe lying in the company’s wake; so much so that Serco’s name has become synonymous with disaster. In 2012, Serco admitted to falsifying data in one of its out-of-hours GP services in Cornwall a staggering 252 times. Two years later, a company Serco set up overcharged NHS hospitals millions as part of a pathology service.

The same year, a University of Greenwich report highlighted the number of workers and members of the public who had died in contracts operated by Serco. And in 2019, the company was fined £23 million after admitting responsibility for fraud over an electronic tagging scandal, in which it charged the Ministry of Justice to tag people who were either dead, in jail, or who had left the country.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Serco’s failures are as numerous as they are shocking.

But perhaps all that is behind them. Perhaps the company has since cleaned up its act and now delivers services incredibly effectively. Perhaps the initial creases in its management of contact tracing have now been ironed out.

Predictably, that’s not the case. In its nine months running the contact tracing system, Serco’s performance has been shocking to say the least. The element of contact tracing it is responsible for has reached just 63.7 percent of close contacts of those who have contracted Covid-19 and asked them to self-isolate since the programme began. That’s despite the government’s own SAGE committee’s statement that to curb the virus’ transmission rate, 80 percent of contacts need to be reached. No wonder those same scientific advisers said the system is only having a ‘marginal impact’.

Alongside the privatised national system, a second, parallel system has been managed by local public health teams. That local system stands in stark contrast. Local public health teams have reached 97.8 percent of contacts, demonstrating that the experience of contact tracing as well as the understanding and knowledge of local communities makes all the difference. So too does a motivation based in public health, rather than shareholders and a bottom line. It means that people can be put first, and corners aren’t cut.

With Covid cases still rising sharply and a more virulent mutation of the virus spreading rapidly, we’ll need measures in place to curb infections for some time still. The inoculation programme will obviously be central, but for the foreseeable future, contact tracing remains integral too.

So as the year draws to a close, the government is facing a decision. They could continue to pour millions of pounds into the pockets of Serco in a throw-money-at-the-problem strategy. Or they could face the fact that their rotten ideology of outsourcing and privatisation has proven once again a disastrous failure, and reallocate the funding they’ve given to private companies and put local public health teams in charge.

If they choose the former, we’ll be stuck with more of the same, as the virus continues to wreak havoc in our communities and more people’s lives are needlessly put at risk; if the latter, we could get the functional contact tracing system we so desperately need.