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“Scrutiny helps improve government policy,” Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs.
Except, it seems, when the scrutiny is on the under-fire NHS Test and Trace system.
Half an hour after Rees-Mogg claimed he welcomed scrutiny, Labour MP Richard Burgon asked him to grant a debate on the “private sector companies undermining our Test and Trace system”.
Rees-Mogg rose to his feet and issued a one-word response: “No.”
Watch: Jacob Rees-Mogg's one-word dismissal of Labour MP over Test and Trace
MPs calling out the government over private sector involvement in NHS Test and Trace, as Burgon did in the House of Commons on Thursday, has become a regular theme in recent weeks. Here’s why.
What’s the issue?
NHS Test and Trace has just had its worst week for coronavirus contact tracing, one of the key methods to keep people safe from the virus.
On Thursday, it emerged that in the week up to 30 September – the most recent for which data is available – just 68.6% of close contacts of people who tested positive for COVID in England were reached and told to self-isolate.
Of those cases handled either online or by private sector call centres, only 62.4% of close contacts were reached. This compares to 97.1% for local council public health teams.
Why are people angry?
Much of the focus is on Serco, the private sector outsourcing company which was given a £108m contract by the government to oversee a key part of the contact tracing system.
As NHS Test and Trace continues to struggle with its contact tracing, anger is growing at the use of Serco, which has also been given a number of non-COVID related contracts in the past.
After his request for a debate was rejected by Rees-Mogg on Thursday, Leeds East MP Burgon told Yahoo News UK: “Lives of people in my community and across the country have been unnecessarily lost due to government failure, including handing over public money to private companies that have made a mess of the vital testing system.
“And now, disgracefully, they won't even allow MPs to debate this issue.
“This is the sign that the Tories' ideological obsession with the private sector is putting public safety at risk.”
Labour MPs’ opposition to Serco extends to the frontbenches, with shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth having demanded on Monday that the company’s contract is not renewed “and instead give responsibility and resources to NHS labs and local public health teams”.
Serco says it is responsible for 33% of the overall contact tracing workforce, and 50% of call handlers. The other 50% is provided by private sector call centre company Sitel, which also has a government contract.
Serco says it “has no further role” in NHS Test and Trace, though Open Democracy has reported it operates 30% of testing sites.
Why is it called ‘NHS Test and Trace’?
The use of “NHS” is another key reason why the government’s opponents are angry.
Many are upset about the optics of the NHS – an institution which the nation was applauding every Thursday earlier this year – being associated with an underperforming system, when in reality it has little to do with contact tracing and only carries out a small percentage of testing.
Every time a government minister stands at the House of Commons despatch box and refers to Test and Trace system, there is a flood of angry Twitter posts mentioning “Serco”.
Other Labour MPs are pointedly refusing to refer to the system by its official name and are instead calling it “Serco Test and Trace”.
Kingston upon Hull East MP Karl Turner is one who did so this week. He said in the House of Commons on Tuesday: “Serco Test and Trace has been an unmitigated disaster. It’s more than an extraordinary waste of public money, it’s a public health crisis.”
In July, it emerged Serco was subcontracting the bulk of its work to 29 other companies.
Dulwich and West Norwood MP Helen Hayes said of the system’s name on Thursday: “It isn’t ‘NHS Test and Trace’, it is ‘Serco-subcontracted-to-29-different-anonymous-subcontractors-test-and-trace’.
“Unaccountable outsourcing is no way to run vital public services which should be delivered by properly funded local public health teams.”
Who else has been speaking out?
One group, We Own It, is running a dedicated campaign to “scrap Serco” and introduce a localised Test and Trace system.
Two weeks ago, it held a protest outside the Department of Health in Westminster. Pascale Robinson, from the group, said: “If we’re to safely leave lockdown, save lives and hug our loved ones again, we desperately need a test, track and trace system that works.
“Unfortunately, what we have instead is an unmitigated disaster, with large parts run by Serco. It’s time for them to be kicked out of the track and trace system.
“It’s time we put our NHS and local public health protection teams in charge of the whole system. After all, they’re the people who know what they’re doing and have the experience to deliver.”
What has Serco said?
A Serco spokesperson said in a statement to Yahoo News UK: “Serco is proud to be supporting NHS Test and Trace providing about a third of the overall tracing team.
“We are one of the two companies calling the recent close [contacts] of confirmed COVID cases.
“All the work that we are doing to support the government’s COVID response is at lower than our normal margins.”
And the government?
Minister Helen Whately defended Test and Trace in the Commons on Tuesday, saying: “Since the NHS Test and Trace system started it has contacted 78.5% of those who have tested positive and then 77% of their contacts have been reached.”
However, when Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez was asked to justify Serco and Sitel’s contracts last week, she admitted there is “concern” at the amount of private involvement in government projects such as Test and Trace.
She said: “Consultants play an important role in what government tries to achieve in a particular project, but she is right, we have concerns about the cost of those consultants and whether we are too reliant on them, and we are actively reviewing that.”
But Lopez also added: “I think that without the private sector we would have struggled to deliver the testing capacity that we have.” Private companies are responsible for “Pillar 2” COVID tests, which account for the majority of tests carried out in the UK each day. The government’s current testing capacity is currently 307,635 a day.
The Department for Health, meanwhile, has said: “Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts, we take these checks extremely seriously and all contracts also have break clauses in them, meaning if the company does not meet required service levels we can cancel the contracts and reclaim taxpayers money.”
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