Government faces questions over contact tracer recruitment

15 May 2020, 10:08

An army of contact tracers promised for mid-May but only a fraction have been recruited so far
An army of contact tracers promised for mid-May but only a fraction have been recruited so far. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Labour has questioned the Government over their army of contact tracers who could be key to ending the UK coronavirus lockdown.

Opposition MPs have been questioning the Government over their efforts to recruit enough contact tracers to allow the country to start easing lockdown measures.

In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, Labour also called into question the reported hiring of private firm Serco to put in place the manual contact tracing team.

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On Friday morning Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted just 1,500 of the Government's target of 18,000 contact tracers have so far been appointed.

Asked how many of the 18,000 contact tracers wanted have been appointed, Mr Lewis told Sky News: "I don't think we've got to 18,000 just yet, I think there's about 15,000 applications, we're looking to as you say get up to 18,000."

Pushed again on how many of the 15,000 applicants have been appointed, he added: "As of this morning I'm not sure of exactly how many of the 15,000 have been hired, earlier in the week it was about 1,500, it would have gone up since then."

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Rachel Reeves, Mr Gove's opposite number, wrote to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster demand "transparency and accountability for the huge sums of taxpayers' money" involved in the Government's response to Covid-19.

She said Labour thought it a "mistake" to have stopped contact tracing in March and said it "supported" moves to establish a "comprehensive strategy for contact tracing both through the use of a suitable mobile phone app and a manual tracing service".

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But she questioned whether 18,000 contact tracers was enough to successfully carry out the task - seen as key to allowing the UK to lift the most stringent lockdown measures - when some experts had suggested "as many as 50,000 may be needed", almost triple the number being hired by the Government.

Ministers hope contact tracing will reduce transmission by identifying and alerting people who may have been exposed to the virus, so that they can protect themselves and others around them by self-isolating.

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Ms Reeves also asked about the reported hiring of Serco and the recent job offers that had been published.

"It is widely reported that the Government has awarded a contract to Serco to run call centres to provide manual contact tracing," she said.

"It is my understanding from these reports that Serco have been asked to provide 18,000 staff, despite some public health professionals suggesting as many as that 50,000 staff are needed, and that these staff will be provided with just one day of training before starting work.

"Contact tracing is a skilled role, handling highly sensitive information, the consequences of which are profound both in terms of public health and the economy.

"Yet job advertisements for manual contact tracing staff are presented as a 'work from home opportunity', at an hourly rate of less than the living wage.

"Applicants are required to have their own computer access and it is not clear who their direct employer will be."

Ms Reeves asked for details about the procurement process that led to the appointment of the outsourcing giant Serco, the checks taken when offering the contract and the length and value of the contract involved.

"The Coronavirus Act allows the Government considerable flexibility to undertake urgent procurement very quickly," she added.

"It does not remove the duty on the Government to transparency (and) accountability."

Ms Reeves also raised points asking about how the Government was seeking to keep up with orders for personal protection equipment (PPE), along with reports that 50,000 tests were flown to the US for assessment as part of a Deloitte contract.

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