How do we get safe track and trace?

By Pascale Robinson | 10 September 2020

The past few months have been more than a tragedy. It is hard to come to terms with. But with winter coming quickly, and schools starting back up, we have little time to prepare communities for expected upsurges in cases. We are already seeing tightening restrictions and the fourth day in a row with over 2,000 cases being reported. Our actions in the coming weeks and months will save lives or risk them.

After ten years of squeezed budgets, councils have been responding in impressive ways to protect their communities.

Time and time again, they have proven that they know their communities and can do amazing work when given the information and resources to coordinate.

But at points, local government has been fighting a staggering uphill struggle. One such area is on the track and trace system.

Much has been made of central government's move to 'strengthen regional contact tracing' however on closer look, this doesn't hold up. The government are in fact still going to have remote callers make the first call, with local follow up only after not reaching them. They are only redeploying a small percentage of national call handlers to local teams, and any ‘local’ follow up could still be hundreds of miles away. Last but certainly not least, they are not giving local authorities any more funding to do vital tracing work in local communities, like the door knocking that has been referenced several times in the surrounding media reports.

Instead, the government decided to disband Public Health England, leaving staff worried for their futures, when they should be able to focus on keeping communities safe with the vital, shoe leather track and trace work they do.

Now, Serco and Sitel's contracts have been renewed from August 23rd. These contracts could see them pocket another £528 million.

Their national, remote, call centre operation is only reaching 62% of close contacts of people with coronavirus according to the recent figures, and just one in four people were contacted by the private companies after 48 hours as late August, the highest number in the three months since test and trace was launched. All the while, Serco’s call handlers have repeatedly complained of a lack of training and criticised the entire system.

By contrast, the latest data shows that the average number of close contacts reached and asked to self-isolate by local public health protection teams is 97% percent.

We have all seen the concerning news that the testing system is also extremely strained. The current system is not working. The evidence makes clear again and again that it is local government and public health protection teams who do this work far more effectively, keeping our communities safer. And they could certainly do it more cheaply too, with the current national, remote call centres operation run by Serco costing the taxpayer £900 per person contacted.

This money being pledged to the national system must be diverted to local authorities, and soon. Though the contracts with Serco and Sitel have been renewed, we do not know how long for, as they haven’t been made public. We must appeal to Matt Hancock and the Department of Health and Social Care to wrap up these contracts and instead give the resources to the amazing teams across England working day in, day out to prevent further unnecessary deaths.

This is what the public want. Communities across the country are gravely worried about the system - and they’re taking action. In the week before the contracts were renewed there was a day of action where 25 groups, socially distanced, stood together outside town halls, and Serco sites, to say ‘Not a penny more to Serco - Give local, public teams the cash’. They called for a locally led response as Wales, Scotland and Germany opted for.

Council leaders from across the spectrum have written to Matt Hancock to say they need the resources to safeguard their towns and cities. Many have had to set up their own parallel local trace and trace systems, bridging political divides in Hull to boldly name the national system an ‘utter failure’ they had to overcome.

This work to keep communities safe throughout the next few months will be remembered. It will be clear in the years to come who called for a safe, locally led track and trace that shielded people from further suffering. We need more leaders to advocate right now for what they know is the best way forward: giving local teams all of the resources to guard communities, not the Serco and Sitel’s operations that slow our battle against this virus every day.

Pascale Robinson is a campaigner at We Own It

We must rapidly improve Test and Trace

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