Photo: Steve Eason

Scrap Serco’s Test and Trace: fund public health not private profit

Thirty-seven billion pounds. £37,000,000,000. Yes, that’s billion, not million.

That’s how much the government has thrown at the misleadingly named, centralised, outsourced ‘NHS’ Test and Trace operation.

That’s three times the £13 billion allocated to the hugely successful, public sector run vaccination programme.

After 130,000 deaths and three lockdowns, it’s time to kill off Johnson’s ‘world-beating’ demonstration of how not to fight a pandemic and replace it with a system run by professional, locally based, public health experts who know what they are doing.

The last few weeks have seen a stream of revelations about how the Tories have used the cover of the pandemic to enrich themselves and their friends – Cameron’s lobbying for his mate Lex Greensill, Dyson’s texts to Johnson, Hancock’s shares in his sister’s company, the VIP fast lane for firms with Tory connections. In February, the High Court of Justice ruled that the government had broken the law by not publishing contract awards within 30 days. And now Transparency International UK has identified 73 contracts worth more than £3.7 billion – equivalent to 20% of all contracts awarded between February and November of last year – whose award would ordinarily be treated as red flags for possible corruption. 27 PPE or testing contracts worth £2.1 billion were awarded to firms with connections to the Conservative party, it claimed.

But let’s not forget that £37 billion in the flurry of new outrages.

When the pandemic first struck, Public Health England set about doing what the WHO was demanding: ‘Test, test, test’. But as the virus took hold, testing was stopped and the Government decided to set up a brand-new operation – a centralised, outsourcing agency.

All its components – administering tests, processing samples in laboratories, and contact tracing – are contracted to private companies such as Deloitte, Serco, Sitel, Mitie, G4S, and Sodexo. As an example of where the money is all going, a year later 2,500 private sector consultants are still working with ‘NHS’ Test and Trace at an estimated daily rate of at least £1,100 per head.

Cronyism and chumocracy have become watchwords for this government. It is no surprise that ‘NHS’ Test and Trace is run by a Tory baroness, and Serco by a scion of one of the most famous Tory families.

‘NHS’ Test and Trace has been a hideously expensive disaster – from the first failed app to sick families were being told to drive hundreds of miles for a test last summer – and it is time the government admitted that. The availability of tests has improved dramatically but (leaving aside the differential accuracy of PCR and RLF tests) testing on its own is meaningless if it is not followed through. There is little point in getting tested, and no incentive to do so, if you can’t afford to stay off work or keep the kids out of school. Tracing the contacts of positive cases promptly and then supporting all who are required to self-isolate are absolutely essential.

These components are now (quietly) being handed over to some local authorities – the ‘Local 0’ project helps their public health team to contact positive cases at the same time as the case is entered into the national ‘NHS’ Test and Trace system. Practical help and support can then be offered when and where it is really needed.

My home patch of Lambeth was the first London borough, and one of the first in the country, to take over complete contact tracing .

Because they are local, experienced, and steeped in the ethos of the public sector, Lambeth’s teams can quickly locate and contact people to offer support and help. A network of local authority, voluntary and charitable bodies provides support that includes not only food shopping, medication collection, and help with claiming the government’s £500 support grant, but also dog walking and, if appropriate, separate accommodation. In an area of multiple languages and ethnicities, mother tongue speaking contact tracers are integral to the teams.

This kind of positive development is what Zero Covid UK means when we talk about an effective Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support (FTTIS) system being needed to go hand in hand with the vaccination programme and Covid-secure workplaces if we are to eliminate community transmission of the virus.

Those billions still being paid to private companies and consultants must urgently be redirected to the NHS and local authorities so that they can not only set up and expand local contact tracing and support but also receive funding to increase pay and cover budgetary deficits.

Baroness Harding, appointed by Matt Hancock, has now ‘moved on’ to Public Health England’s replacement agency, the UK Health Security Agency. Serco’s contact tracing contract ends on 17 May – and must not be renewed.

Now is the time to demand change.

We Own It and Zero Covid UK are holding a Day of Action on Tuesday 27 April to tell the Government to end Serco’s contract for contact tracing and give the money to the public sector.

Join us in demanding that the government fix contact tracing and scrap Serco.  The money should be given to the real NHS and local public health teams.

This article was published in the Morning Star, 26 April 2021

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