POLITICS
15/10/2020 5:24 AM AEDT

'Sack Serco': Government Told To Halt Test And Trace Outsourcing 'Goldrush'

Labour's Rachel Reeves urges Boris Johnson to hand work to local public health teams.

PA
Baroness Dido Harding during a media briefing in Downing Street, London.

Ministers “obsessed” with outsourcing have been urged to “sack Serco” and hand Covid-19 test and trace work to local public health teams.  

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves was among many MPs to savage the government’s “failing” contact tracing regime, which is largely managed by Serco and other private firms. 

Amid growing criticism of test and trace, Reeves accused the government of “murky” subcontracting as she urged Boris Johnson to “change course” from the “failed model of outsourcing”. 

The frontbencher said Johnson’s “world beating” testing regime is “barely functioning”, adding: “It’s failing to reach people who have come into contact with someone with the virus, it’s not getting information to local councils who need need to act on it and it’s wasting hundreds of millions of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money that could be spent on a local response using local expertise.” 

The latest figures for NHS Test and Trace showed that 71.6% of close contacts of Covid cases were reached.

It means that for the 14th week running, the figure is below the 80% figure that the government’s scientific advisers have said is needed to make the entire policy viable.

There have also been many reports of chaos on the ground, with families forced to travel for hours for a check, and more than 16,000 lab-confirmed cases logged almost a week late.

TOLGA AKMEN via Getty Images
Labour shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Rachel Reeves.

Reeves argued of Serco’s £45m to deliver contact tracing: “Serco didn’t bid for the contact tracing contract, they were handed it on a plate with no competition, no rigour and no transparency.”

To the outsourcing companies, Reeves said, “this is a goldrush” the Labour shadow minister added, referring to “murky subcontracting” by the government. 

She added: “I challenge the minister today to name all of Serco’s subcontractors and publish details on how much they have been paid and for what….I fear that the more we know about what is happening in contract tracing under the bonnet, the worse that it gets.”

She also claimed there was “a cosiness between the Conservative government and these outsourcing companies”. The former chief lobbyist of Serco – which has a £45m contract for test and trace – is Tory MP Edward Argar, who is now serving as a health minister. 

The shadow minister concluded: “My message today is simple. Sack Serco and give those resources to local councils.”

Labour’s Dan Carden, who represents Liverpool Walton, meanwhile, claimed the “cronyism” of the NHS Test and Trace scheme is well documented.

He told MPs: “Conservative Baroness and business executive Baroness Harding appointed as the head of test and trace, Serco’s CEO the brother of a former Tory MP and Tory MPs on the boards of companies winning contracts.

“And if you’ve got a problem with any of this, well why not take it up with the government’s anti-corruption champion – Dido Harding’s husband and a Tory MP.

“The whole thing stinks.”

In further criticism of the government’s approach, reports have emerged in recent days that Boston Consulting Group are being paid day rates of around £7,000 to contact trace.

Lib Dem MP Munira Wilson said: “Just imagine how far that money would go if it was given to local authorities.

“They are paying these consultants the weekly equivalent of what a nurse earns in a year. I don’t have an ideological issue with the private sector, but as (Labour MP Clive Betts) said, it is about having the right expertise in the right place.”

Responding for the government, health minister Jo Churchill admitted the government’s testing and tracing efforts have not “always gone seamlessly”.

She said: “Today’s motion refers to local contact tracing and that has in fact been getting rolled out to local authorities across the country since August of this year.

“Has it always gone seamlessly? Has it always been perfect? I am the first at this despatch box to always say: ‘nothing ever does ladies and gentlemen’.” 

She also said that Serco and other private companies such as Sitel were awarded the contract through a “fair and open competition”.

She added: “Test and trace was stood up at incredible speed and has developed at scale and pace.

“As you would expect a government to do it responded at pace. But I will just put on record, the honourable lady mentioned Serco on more than one occasion.

“As she will well know, having reacted to the changing situation at pace, Serco and Sitel went through a full tendering process to become one of the suppliers to the government so that they can be drawn down on at short notice.”

A Survation survey, shared exclusively with HuffPost UK, has shown 74% want local public health teams, rather than Serco and Sitel, to run NHS Test and Trace. 

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