A multi-million pound Scottish Government contract awarded to a Glasgow call centre firm without competition for Covid-19 contact tracing has prompted fears that increasing privatisation will see the vital service suffer.
On November 25, details of a contract award from NHS National Services Scotland were posted online.
It said Glasgow firm Pursuit Digital had been awarded a £10.2m contract as “part of an interim service solution that safeguards the existing high standard of service at Scotland’s National Contact Tracing Centre”.
Normal rules that mean significant public sector contracts must be open to a range of bidders were waived. Instead, the contract was awarded without open competition “for reasons of extreme urgency brought about by events unforeseeable by the contracting authority”.
The Scottish Government insists that “all contact tracing in Scotland is, and will remain, NHS led” despite the “additional resource” provided by the private company.
But anti-privatisation campaign group We Own It has warned that moves to outsource parts of the Covid-19 contact tracing services to private firms could undermine their effectiveness.
Cat Hobbs Director of We Own It said that news of the contract award was “extremely disappointing”.
She said: “Throughout this pandemic we’ve seen that when contact tracing is run locally by public health teams it is far more effective.
“Whether it’s Westminster or Holyrood, our governments should be investing in a proper public health response to this crisis – not squandering money needlessly with the private sector.
“The Scottish Government should think again and commit to a contact tracing system led by public health teams, the NHS and primary care services.”
The £10.2m contract award follows a series of smaller outsourcing deals linked to Scottish contacting tracing services.
Earlier awards include a £1.29m contract to Motherwell-based call centre Ascensos and £1.8m contract to Barrhead Travel for the “immediate and rapid deployment of contact tracers”.
The Scottish Government is not alone in outsourcing contact tracing work to call-centres where staff have little or no medical background.
In England, where contact tracing has been outsourced to private firms on a far larger scale, another travel firm was paid to re-purpose its call centre resources. Staff working on the project reportedly received just four hours of training before they were able to start work.
Benefits of outsourcing ‘not clear’
Just 11 per cent of people contacted by contact tracers in the UK actually go on to quarantine properly, according to one widely cited research paper released earlier this year.
Another assessment by the Independent SAGE group estimated that, in England, just five per cent of people contacted by the largely privatised contact tracing service there who were without symptoms but asked to self-isolate actually comply with the request.
The experts on the Independent SAGE group have repeatedly called for the system to be re-organised so that contact tracing funding is directed to support local public health professionals, as they believe that this would lead to a more effective system.
Meanwhile, an official government advice paper concludes that a compliance rate of 80 per cent or more is needed if contact tracing is to be really effective.
It also adds that a failure to notify the contacts of people with a positive test within 72 hours of the result can also have a ‘significant’ effect on the speed that the virus spreads.
Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell said: “It’s vital that we don’t see any repetition of the UK Government’s outsourcing shambles in Scotland, so the Scottish Government must urgently explain why it has been necessary to hand such an important part of its test and protect programme to a private firm.
“It’s not clear how outsourcing the system will help with some of the inadequacies that already exist within the system, like the huge number of people failing to self-isolate when asked to do so.”
Contact tracing performance data supplied by Public Health Scotland does not include data on quarantine compliance rates.
But the data does show that the national service has closed an average of around 4,000 cases per week since reports started being published in August 2020. The number of weekly cases has varied from a few hundred to more than 8,300 at the peak of the second wave in early October.
At the start of October more than a third of cases were taking longer than 72 hours from test to ‘case closed’. But as the number of positive weekly cases has decreased, the data shows that the time taken by the Scottish contact tracing service to close cases has also improved.
£2 million per month
The latest contract award to Pursuit Digital is to cover a five month period, roughly equivalent to £2m cost per month.
Scottish Government officials have insisted that the service has not been privatised, whilst First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has denied that the use of private firms in the track and track system amounts to outsourcing.
This prompted Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay to accuse the government of “double speak”.
“Here we see yet another NHS contract being handed to the private sector – the double speak from SNP Ministers is never ending,” he added. “They claim there is no privatisation of health services in Scotland yet dole out millions in public contracts to private operators, all of this without any parliamentary accountability or open tendering process.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson did not respond to questions on why Pursuit Digital was awarded the contract, or what training staff working for the firm would be provided with.
But in a statement they said: “Pursuit Digital was initially awarded a contract by National Services Scotland (NSS) in October 2020 to augment existing NHS Contact Tracing capacity and build resilience during peaks in demand for this service.
“All contact tracing in Scotland is, and will remain, NHS led and this additional resource does not change that fact.
“All staff working on Contact Tracing in Scotland are required to have an appropriate check by Disclosure Scotland and have been appropriately trained and operate under the direction of NSS which maintains oversight. All case data is held and stored securely on the NHS Scotland Contact Tracing Case Management System.”
A spokesperson for Pursuit said: “As one of Scotland’s leading contact centre and digital technology providers, we have been engaged by NHS National Services Scotland to provide support to the National Contact Tracing Centre.
“Our contract is subject to performance targets and our team is prepared to meet the demands of any requirements specified by NHS National Services Scotland.”
This story was updated at 14.48pm on the day of publication to include a response from Pursuit Digital.