The established system for contact tracing is operated through Public Health England (PHE) and run by local public health protection teams in the public sector. Its services had been badly eroded as a result of decades of cuts and closures.
Instead of rebuilding capacity the government decided to create a centralised, privatised system managed by outsourcing giant Serco and call centre company Sitel – which had no experience in contact tracing.
The 27,000 workers employed by Serco and Sitel have reached and advised an average of about two cases and two contacts per call handler over a twelve week period. That’s the equivalent of around £900 per person traced. Call handlers report having nothing to do and some have had no calls to make at all – with some even claiming that they have been paid to sit around and watch Netflix.
To make matters worse, test and trace data show in the twelve week period leading up to August 5th, the privatised national call centres and online service reached and asked to self-isolate only just over half of close contacts of those diagnosed with Covid-19, leaving local health protection teams and local councils to mop up the rest from their scarce resources.
Allyson M Pollock is Professor of public health at the Faculty of Medical Sciences in Newcastle University. Her latest book The End of the NHS is forthcoming from Verso.