Labour urges government to “ditch failing Serco and let councils run contact tracing”

Elliot Chappell

Labour is set to urge the government to “ditch Serco and let councils and local public health teams run contact tracing” following reports that the largely privatised system is only having a “marginal impact” on stopping transmission.

The party will use an opposition day debate in parliament this afternoon to discuss the poorly performing track and trace system, which according to official figures for the latest weekly statistics only reached 68.6% of contacts.

Labour is expected to use the session to highlight the markedly better rate of success in tracing undertaken by local health protection teams, which for the same period managed to reach 97.1% of contacts.

Commenting ahead of the debate, Rachel Reeves said: “For months, Labour has been asking this government to put contact tracing into the hands of councils and local public health teams who know their own communities better than anyone.

“In the face of all the evidence, the Tories are continuing with a system that rewards failure by handing enormous sums of money to big companies such as Serco and Sitel.

“This approach has defied the experience around the world, left underfunded public services to clear up the mess days later and made our communities vulnerable to rising infection rates.”

Serco and Sitel, the two firms hired by the government to help run the national test and trace programme, are set to receive over £1bn for their work on the scheme. Serco receives 40% of its annual revenue from running UK public services.

Serco was initially contracted for £108m for 14 weeks up to August 23rd, with the option to extend for a longer period up to a value of £410m in total. Sitel had a similar arrangement, for £84m initially and £310m if extended.

Labour has several times requested that the government outline the performance standards ministers are using to assess private companies involved in the contact tracing system. The government has repeatedly refused to do so.

Serco last month admitted that it only managed to reach 60% of those in contact with people who tested positive for Covid-19. It was also responsible for a data breach earlier in the pandemic.

Reeves added: “The government should look at the science, follow Labour’s call to bring in a circuit break and transfer control of contact tracing to local authorities, so that we can better protect people’s lives and livelihoods.”

Starmer called on the government to implement a ‘circuit break’ lockdown on Tuesday evening following reports that ministers ignored advice from experts to implement the nationwide measure to combat the spread of the virus.

Welsh Labour First Minister Mark Drakeford has also declared that his government is considering a ‘circuit break’ lockdown for the devolved nation in an effort to suppress the rising number of coronavirus cases.

The Prime Minister has come under increasing pressure over recent weeks for the government’s management of the tracing programme with criticism escalating significantly as a result of what Boris Johnson called a “computing issue”.

Over 15,000 Covid cases went unpublished in the government’s daily reports, and were not passed onto contact tracers and public health teams in early October. This meant that as many as 48,000 potential Covid contacts went untraced.

Labour is expected to use the debate this afternoon to highlight the poor performance of the test and trace system alongside the “huge sums of public money” handed to private companies to administer the programme.

The party will also call for additional funding for contact tracing in tier-three areas to be transferred to all parts of the country to make sure “councils and local public health teams receive the resources and powers they require”.

Below is the full text of the motion tabled by the Labour Party today.

That this House notes the consistently high performance of local contact tracing systems when compared with the centralised system established by the government; notes the wealth of evidence that the considerable sums of public money spent so far on the national system would deliver better public health outcomes if devolved to local authorities and public health experts; and calls on the government to extend the additional funding for contact tracing available in tier three areas to all parts of the country and ensure that councils and local public health teams receive the resources and powers they require.

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