It was hailed as a “world-beating” service by prime minister Boris Johnson at its launch, but three months on and contract tracers hired to work on England’s test-and-trace system say they are making only a handful of calls every month and are occupying their time with barbecues and quizzes.
Agents told the Guardian they were often calling people who had already been spoken to by another contact tracer, and making calls to numbers that did not exist or that went straight through to voicemail.
Employees at Sitel – one of the companies contracted to provide the service – said they were being given quizzes by team leaders to keep them occupied in the day and that prizes were even being offered to those making the highest number of calls to keep up morale. One contact tracer said that in one instance £50 was awarded to the highest ranking caller in each team, who was then put in a draw at the end of the month to win a TV.
The details come amid growing frustration among local health officials about the national test-and-trace system, which was launched in May and was seen as vital to easing England out of lockdown. Run by the former TalkTalk executive Dido Harding, it involves more than 20,000 contact tracers, paid around £10 an hour, employed by private firms such as Serco.
One contact tracer said they had made just a few calls in two months of work, two of which had been fake numbers. “I’ve heard of tracers claiming to be sat in the garden having a barbecue so that they can stay logged in and clock up the hours,” he added. “They aren’t alone – there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of similar stories.”
Another agent said that they were sent daily icebreakers which included questions such as “what’s your favourite flower?”, and that they had to do pub quiz-style questions as a part of the team “to pass the time and keep people active”.
He said: “It’s very juvenile, particularly when they treat us with extreme scepticism and negativity when calls aren’t coming in.”
Data seen by the Guardian provided by an employee at the company Intelling, hired through outsourcing firm Serco, appears to show the scale of inactivity among employees, with 471 agents making just 135 calls in two days – around 0.14 calls per agent per day. This figure includes calls to incorrect numbers, voicemails, or multiple calls made to the same individual. One tracer working at the company said that one individual had been called by tracers 20 times.
Serco said they have no record of someone being contacted 20 times and that it was better to have too much capacity in terms of staff than too little.
Another tracer for a company contracted through Serco said they had been working for two and a half months and made just four calls, with the last one over a month ago and two that went to voicemail. She said she had seen a spreadsheet showing around 15 calls a day were being made by a team of over 55 people. Some of her colleagues had still not made a single call, she said.
“We could easily make 30 calls a day,” said a tracer at Intelling. “I’ve worked hundreds of hours and only made a handful of calls, and all of them have gone to voicemail.”
“It’s been very frustrating, and I’m grappling with my own morals because I’m wasting so much [public] money,” they said. “They keep telling us next week it’s going to get more busy, and at first you believe that, but over time reality sets in that I may never make a real call, and I’ll be paid thousands of pounds by the government. That’s deeply frustrating if you want to help.”
The Guardian has seen progress reports from another contract tracer working at Sitel, which showed his team was averaging around 10 cases per person over nine weeks. He said that he had done a handful of calls, of which only one had connected and that person had already been contacted.
Contract tracers reported that phone calls that had taken place were not being logged properly on the system, due to a lack of training. They said this meant some people were getting called multiple times a day by agents.
“Someone spoke to a Serco agent for 35 minutes and it was [incorrectly] logged as a voicemail, so goes back into the system and my colleague called to run through the whole thing again,” one call handler said.
“From a personal perspective I am a medical student so public health initiatives like track and trace is something I care about and meant something to me,” said one tracer. “I understand the consequences of really good public health initiatives and this was an opportunity to do something powerful and make a huge difference.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “In just eight weeks NHS test and trace has tested over 2.6 million people for coronavirus and contacted more than 218,000 people who have tested positive for the virus, or recently been in contact with someone who has tested positive, in order to break the chain of transmission.
“We have over 27,000 contact tracers in place to undertake this vital work and anyone with symptoms should book a test.”
When contacted for comment, Sitel merely sent a link to a webpage about the impact of the pandemic on its operations. Intelling did not respond to a request for comment.