Almost since the start of the coronavirus crisis, we have known that in order to edge safely back towards normality, a fully functioning test and trace system is essential. For months, our government has claimed that the UK will have a “world beating” system to combat the virus.
Yet instead they have presided over a failed programme that prioritises the enrichment of private corporations over the protection of our communities.
Rather than trust local health experts and the public sector, the Department of Health has placed its trust in corporate outsourcing giants such as Serco, Sitel and Capita. These companies have virtually no experience in public health initiatives – but do have many allegations of price gouging and workplace malpractice.
The government still hasn’t published its contracts with these outsourcing giants, and a recent letter signed by more than 100 leading health professionals and public figures urged the government to act with greater transparency. According to the Treasury, £10bn has been allocated to England’s test and trace programme. In contrast, £300m of additional funding has been offered to local authorities to support devolved trace systems.
Despite this clear lack of funding, local trace systems far outperform their corporate rivals.
The Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Independent Sage) said the centralised testing system “basically just isn’t good enough” and shows no signs of improvement. The government’s own emergency science group says the target to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further is finding and reaching 80 per cent of all close contacts of symptomatic cases.
Yet in Blackburn, where health chiefs are battling a major outbreak, leaked analysis shows that the national tracing service is reaching only 52 per cent of all close contacts – and this figure reflects the national average.
My home city of Leicester is a prime example of the contrasting success of the local public health-led trace systems. Due to the hard work and diligence of local authority workers, as well as their instantaneous access to local knowledge and multiple sources to obtain contact details, the success rate of Leicester’s system is 85 per cent.
Yet when Peter Soulsby, Leicester City mayor, requested that this effective model be granted more responsibility, the national Contact Tracing and Advisory Service rejected this plea.
‘No country currently has a functioning test and trace app,’ Johnson claims
Essential local data is still not flowing to neighbouring public health departments because the government is pouring billions of pounds into private sector companies which have no experience of test and trace. Engaging the private sector to capture the data is demonstrably inefficient, and local public health teams, NHS laboratories and Public Health England can do this much better. This is what happens in other countries like Germany, which is partly why they’ve only had a sixth of the deaths the UK has.
With the government pursuing a commercial strategy, rather than a public sector solution, we do not have an integrated or coherent system with interpretable data. Instead, we have a collective ignorance in relation to crucial local information. We need the government’s failed test and trace system to be replaced with a fully public health sector-run find, test, trace, isolate and support system, as argued by the Independent Sage.
Members of Independent Sage also highlighted the fact that people who are less well off will find it very hard to take 14 days off work when they know they won’t be paid or, worse, will lose their job. This reflects the situation on the ground in Leicester, where our spike in cases was linked in part to the fact that low-paid British citizens on informal or zero-hour contracts and those with undocumented immigration status or “no recourse to public funds” were unable to safely isolate or take time away from exploitative workplaces.
It should be simple: if you get contacted by test and trace, you must be provided with the material means to isolate. It is impossible for impoverished people to comply with guidance on self-isolation and social distancing. It is not just morally imperative but in the best public health interest of everyone in our country that people’s basic needs are met.
Yet sadly we do not have a government prioritising public health. We have a government facilitating an unscrutinised handover of collective wealth to the pockets of wealthy shareholders.
After suspending commissioning rules, government ministers have awarded exclusive coronavirus-related state contracts worth more than £1bn to private companies. To give just one example, Randox, a private healthcare firm, has been awarded a £133m contract without any competition.
Recently, it was unearthed that as much as £177m of taxpayer money was wasted on a contract with a company Andrew Mills, an adviser to Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, is a senior board adviser for. The company had no experience of providing health equipment, and the contract was for Ayanda FFP2 masks which are so defunct they fail compliance tests and thus cannot be used by the NHS.
Outsourcing businesses including Deloitte, KPMG and Sodexo have all secured taxpayer-funded commissions to manage Covid-19 testing centres, the procurement of equipment and the construction of hospitals.
This gives the impression that the Conservatives and sections of big business are seeking to use the confusion of the current crisis to force through a new wave of what Naomi Klein termed the “Shock Doctrine”, in which public funds are paid to the private sector with little or no oversight.
The wasteful experiment of the private sector in our test and trace system must end. The government must urgently prove that they value public wellbeing over private profit by introducing a fully nationalised system that empowers local authorities to protect our communities.
Claudia Webbe is the Labour MP for Leicester East