The head of Serco has labelled critics of the test and trace operation “anti-vaxxers” who are trying to undermine confidence in the system.
The outsourcing firm, which provides contact tracers to find people who may have been exposed to coronavirus and persuade them to self-isolate, has been criticised for the scheme’s performance.
Test and trace has faced criticism for consistently failing to hit targets.
New figures show 59.6% of close contacts of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in England were reached through the test and trace system in the week ending 14 October, the lowest level since the scheme launched.
Experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) say that at least 80% must be reached for test and trace to be effective in curbing the spread of COVID.
In a September report, Sage said test and trace was having a “marginal impact” on transmission.
Labour last week said it was “grim beyond belief” that Serco were set to make more than £160m this year – millions more than expected – despite their contact tracers’ failure to contact 250,000 people over four months.
Responding to claims that Serco tracers have reached an average of 70% of contacts, boss Rupert Soames told ITV’s Peston show on Wednesday night that the figure ignored some 172,000 people who are in the same household as someone who has tested positive.
He said Serco made the “very reasonable assumption” that someone in the same household as a COVID sufferer would also self-isolate.
Watch: Untrained staff take on contact tracing jobs
Adding this “same-household” data would mean Serco actually achieving a 89% success rate, he claimed.
Asked why so few people self-isolated after being contacted – a figure thought to be as low as 11% – Soames said a “national effort was needed” to persuade people to follow the guidance.
Test and trace criticism ‘dangerous’
Soames went on to accuse critics of test and trace were “trivialising the issue”.
Speaking directly to Labour MP Dr Rosina Allin-Khan sitting opposite him in the studio, Soames criticised her for tweeting “Serco Test and Trace” repeatedly during the programme.
He said: “To try and deny that this is run by the NHS, designed by the NHS – the tracers are NHS and local authority people – is trivialising it.”
He went on to brand criticism of test and trace as “dangerous”, comparing it to the anti-vaxxer movement.
“We have precedent of people going and changing facts and actually telling mistruths about major medical things – it’s called anti-vaxxers,” he said.
“Anti-vaxxers persuaded people not to go and get vaccinations.”
Soames criticised Labour for saying the system was “collapsing” and for putting out the message that “nobody gives a damn and by the way it’s run by a greedy capitalist whose incompetence is only matched by the size of his girth”.
Allin-Khan accused Soames of “spinning” and said the test, track and trace system needed to be localised and that Serco was failing to hit its targets.
Visibly shaking, Soames described that number as “fake data”.
The Full Fact website said Labour’s claim “lacked context” as Serco deal with “non-complex” coronavirus cases.
Non-complex cases account for over 90% in the test and trace system and see the infected individual have to give details of their recent close contacts to NHS staff.
These are then passed on to national test and trace staff, some working for Serco, others for Sital.
Tracing individuals can be more challenging than “complex cases” – which relate to a particular place where there may be an outbreak – due to some communication details not being passed on.
Soames, who admitted Serco is paid about £1.5bn by the UK government, described the UK test and trace operation as the largest in Europe by “a country mile” saying it performed 1.2 million tests a week.
Watch: Test and trace ‘not good enough’