Test and Trace failing because people won't answer 'cold caller' number, NHS warned

Izzy Lyons
·3-min read
contact tracers - Adrees Latif /REUTERS
contact tracers - Adrees Latif /REUTERS

The NHS Test and Trace service is failing because people do not want to answer the phone to 0300 numbers owing to bad experiences with cold callers, the Local Government Association (LGA) has warned. 

Call centre staff enlisted by the Government to track down people who have come into contact with positive Covid-19 cases use the “unrecognisable” 0300 number which is deterring some people from answering the phone. 

The LGA called for “boots on the ground” in local areas to reach those who may feel they are being “pestered” by cold callers or debt collectors. 

This week researchers reported that only 50 per cent of contacts were being traced through the NHS scheme - a significant shortfall of the 80 per cent target that Government scientists said needs to be reached in order for the service to be effective.

The poor results of the nationwide project has resulted in multiple local authorities setting up their own systems, including Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council in the West Midlands and Blackburn with Darwen Council in Lancashire. Health officials in Greater Manchester are also reportedly looking into establishing their own team of local virus-tracers. 

The £192 million NHS test and trace system, which aims to prevent a second wave, is staffed by more than 20,000 contact tracers through the private firms Serco and Sitel. 

Time to contact in Test and Trace
Time to contact in Test and Trace

The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, called for a radical overhaul of the scheme and for local authorities to be put “in the driving seat”.

“The problem with the national system, where you effectively get a call from a 0300 number from a call centre run by an outsource company like Serco, is that they are not as effective as the on the ground authority,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

“When you look at the statistics, the [local authority] has a much better success rate. That’s because after 48 hours if Serco can’t get hold of people - which is around 50 per cent - they pass the contacts over to local public health officials, and they have a success rate of around 90 per cent. So they are clearly better at getting hold of people.”

Former Conservative minister David Davis said that using such a phone number “demonstrates how stupid” the implementation of contact tracing has been.

He said: “I would not pick up the phone to an 0300 myself because I do not want to spend my time talking to someone trying to sell me double glazing.

“People don’t want to pick up the phone to something that looks like spam. Switching to local phone numbers would be a very easy way of ensuring compliance.”

A spokesman for the Local Government Association, which represents 300 councils in England, said: “Many people do not answer the phone to any unrecognised numbers. All of us at one time have been pestered by cold callers. For some hard-to-reach people, answering the phone can bring problems being chased for a debt or faced with language difficulties.

“We would encourage anyone called by the 0300 013 5000 number to answer and do their bit to help defeat this virus. But it is also crucial that missed calls can be followed up on the ground by public health experts experienced in contact tracing.

“Covid-19 is best understood as a pattern of local outbreaks, rather than a national pandemic with a similar impact in every community, which is why councils as local leaders have a fundamental role to play in the test and trace service.

“Councils’ public health teams need to be able to use their unique expertise, including speaking other languages, and understanding of their communities to try to reach those who cannot be contacted by the test and trace system."