UK Government Accused of New “U-Turn” on Local Covid Contact Tracing with Outsourcing Giants Serco and Sitel

Lambert here: Serco and Sitel are two of the giant corporations who will handle health care in the U.K. after the Tories finally manage to gut the NHS.

By Caroline Molloy, editor of openDemocracy UK and OurNHS, and a journalist and speaker. Originally published by Open Democracy.

The government has come under fresh criticism today over its controversial COVID-19 Track and Trace scheme, after admitting that, despite this week’s promise to “strengthen regional contact tracing”, the major firms involved in the controversial scheme will not actually be redeploying any of their staff to work regionally with local councils.

Outsourcing giants Serco and Sitel, tasked with running the scheme, have been under fire over reports of call handlers reaching less than half of the contacts of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, at a cost of over £900 per person traced.

This week the government announced a “new way of working” in which “NHS Test and Trace will provide local authorities with a dedicated team of contact tracers for local areas” – a move welcomed by experts who had long advocated a more localised approach.

However, the government now stands accused by Shadow health minister Justin Madders of “U-turning on the U-turn” – after admitting to openDemocracy that no Serco or Sitel staff would be moved to work with local councils.

Oldham – the site of a major COVID outbreak – had to build its own contact tracing system and is, according to Council Deputy Leader Arooj Shah, “already looking at what vital services we may have to cut to cover our COVID costs because the government hasn’t given us what it said it would”.

openDemocracy also understands that other councils tackling major COVID outbreaks are asking existing staff to redeploy from other work, and local citizens to volunteer unpaid, in order to provide the contact tracing services needed.

Allyson Pollock, a member of independent SAGE, has described the situation as “outrageous” – warning that large-scale lockdowns are “catastrophic for the economy [and] an indicator that the current test and trace system is not working”.

Failures to reach enough contacts nationally means, she says, that “local authorities are mopping up clusters after 2 days and that’s too late”.

She characterised the current system as a “misallocation” of public funds amounting to “maladministration” by the central government.

Serco and Sitel have been awarded contracts that could see them receive up to £718 million of public money, although the government has refused to say whether this figure has now been reduced, given the one third cut in staffing levels announced this week.

A ‘New Way of Working’

This week the government announced that the national Track and Trace service “will move from 18,000 to 12,000 contact tracers on 24 August with remaining teams to be deployed as part of dedicated local Test and Trace teams".

The media reported this as a major change to the current system. The Times reported that “A third of the call centre staff are to be laid off and the rest deployed regionally to work with councils… Call centre staff who work nationally will be split into regional teams after complaints they were too remote from the people they were asking to isolate.” The BBC and rest of the press reported in a similar vein.

But under close questioning from openDemocracy, this version of events has fallen apart. In fact, the only people who will be “split into regional teams” and “deployed as part of dedicated local Test and Trace teams” are an entirely separate, much smaller group of clinically trained professionals working for Public Health England and the Department of Health, known as “Tier 2”, none of whom are part of the multi-million pound Serco/Sitel contracts.

The Department told openDemocracy that Serco and Sitel’s contracts had been extended beyond the initial review date of 23 August, and the outsourcing giants would continue to employ 12,000 generic national call handlers – known as “Tier 3” – but not, for the time being at least, in locally ringfenced teams. The Department confirmed that, “Our initial focus on ringfenced teams will involve Tier 2, and we will continue to review and develop our model.”

No Extra Cash for Councils for Now

Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders told openDemocracy there needed to be a “more straightforward and honest approach” by government rather than “what sounds like smoke and mirrors”, and urged the government to “swiftly reconsider their position”, adding: “If the government are going to continue to spend millions of pounds on a falling model with the private sector that doesn’t deliver the results we need then this has massive implications for the ability for the rest of the country to deliver the challenges that lie ahead.”

The Serco and Sitel contact tracing contracts specified payments of £190 million in total for the first three months, but also allow for the firms to be paid up to an additional £528 million as they are extended. It is not currently clear how long the contracts have been extended for, though as openDemocracy reported earlier this week, Sitel workers have been told it is for an initial period of a further 8 weeks from 24 August.

Asked about redirecting any of that money from the outsourcing firm to councils, the government said they had already allocated £300 million in June to be shared between local authorities “to support their local outbreak plans.”

The government acknowledged that those local authorities who have developed their own schemes “have used existing resources thus far”. They added they would “work with local authorities to refine that approach and make best use of all resources to achieve the best outcome.”


Oldham Council’s Labour Deputy Leader and COVID-lead told openDemocracy: “It’s impossible to do as good a job from a call centre hundreds of miles away… The government is insisting on spending public money with Sitel and Serco for reasons that can only be ideological.”

“The evidence is clear that we are better at this than private firms working nationally. It would be cheaper and deliver better results if the government trusted local authorities to take the lead.”

“Putting more responsibility on local authorities while funnelling resources to the private sector is even more unsustainable,” he said, adding that “we see people sat in call centres with nothing to do but watch Netflix because they’re not engaged in local teams.”

The extension of the private sector contracts to provide a broadly similar service as currently is “extraordinary”, Allyson Pollock, professor of public health and a member of independent SAGE, told openDemocracy.

“It’s actually maladministration because you’ve got misapplication and misallocation. There’s no transparency about the mechanics of the system and about how the money is flowing.”

Professor Pollock added: “The government needs to get this right so we can get on top of clusters. If local authorities are mopping up clusters after 2 days that’s too late, given that the national system is picking up less than 50% of cases. Councils should be doing the whole lot, not just the mopping up. Serco and Sitel are cherry picking and doing the easy bits and leaving the difficult stuff to local authorities.”

Campaign group WeOwnIt, which is calling for “not a penny more” to be paid to Serco and Sitel for these contracts, is organising a day of action on Tuesday 18 August.

The row comes amidst mounting disquiet about other major government COVID contracts which were similarly awarded without competition, or extended without consultation.

Serco earlier this week said that it had "played an important part in helping to reach hundreds of thousands of people who might otherwise have passed on the virus. Our team of call handlers has been 93% successful in persuading people to isolate where we are able to have conversations.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Anonymous2

    The incompetence of the Johnson government is staggering to behold. They lurch from one ghastly self-created mess to another. The UK, if it still exists, will be a rare old mess by 2024 if this continues.

    At least their friends seem to be doing well out of it.

  2. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Lambert.

    One should not be surprised that Serco is involved. Its CEO, Rupert (Christopher) Soames is the brother, son and grandson of Tory Grandees, Nicholas, Christopher and Winston (Churchill).

    Serco is part of that network of parasites, often led and owned by well connected neo-liberals, blue, red and yellow. Even Soames admitted that one reason for his selection as CEO was his ruling class connections. [If only Baroness Dido Harding was similarly honest. Google alternative media coverage of her.] Soames was sensible enough to admit defeat and abandon the contract to service Australian warships after some scandals.

    Further to Soames’ profiteering, one wonders why his brother recently said that this was the worst cabinet he had come across since entering politics from the army, the Hussars like their grandfather.

    Professor Pollock was forced out by New Labour for speaking out over creeping privatisation of the NHS. One the people involved in that was Harriet Harman, cousin of former Tory ministers Virginia Bottomley and Jeremy Hunt and Labour’s Kitty Usher. It does not matter what colour rosette forms Her Majesty’s government.

    Readers, at least in the UK, will often hear about the NHS test and trace app. That app has nothing to do with the NHS. Serco and other scoundrels, including firms run by associates of Dominic Cummings, are involved, but the NHS is used to provide cover and take the blame.

  3. Biologist

    This is the UK version of “everything is like CalPERS”.

    Naively, at the beginning of the pandemic I thought that, despite all the evidence from Brexit, this government would at least pretend to try to not get us all killed or the economy destroyed. Instead, at every single turn–PPE, Covid testing, contact tracing–they’re siphoning public money off to their crony friends. A few dozen million here, the occasional few hundred million there. Meanwhile each problem they were supposed to solve gets worse, like in this case the cash-starved councils who have the expertise but not the resources to do contact tracing. It’s like a giant parasite, sucking energy and resources out of what’s left of the public sphere, in the worst possible time.

    Has the UK always been so openly corrupt, or did they just hide it better previously? I suppose with a majority of 80 in parliament and elections several years away they think they can get away with it. They’re probably right.

  4. Hayek's Heelbiter

    If you want to know roughly what’s going on, I suggest you take a look at

    Notice the graph at 7th July, at the beginning of the second wave, roughly around the time lockdown eased,
    For some reason, the England page originally was broken down by region, but now only consolidated date is shown. The last time it was broken down, the rate of infection increase ranged from .03% in London to .06% in Northern hot spots.

    HM Government is now only releasing CONFIRMED CV-19 deaths, and with good reason. As the following article observes:

    Coronavirus: England had highest excess death rate in Europe over first half of 2020, ONS says
    Scientists say the figures are the most important relative measure of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact.

    The article is only in percentages, so if anybody can come up with hard numbers, I would appreciate it.

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