NAO finds Test and Trace outsourcing saw ‘substantial resources spent on staff providing minimal services’

Written by Jim Dunton and Sam Trendall on 15 December 2020 in News

Call-handlers were unoccupied half the time, auditors’ report found

Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

The government has been criticised for spending unnecessary money on outsourced workers operating call centres and digital systems for the NHS Test and Trace programme who have remained unoccupied for more than half the working day.

A new report from the National Audit Office said that the Department of Health and Social Care considered using civil servants for call-handling work connected to the work of the contact-tracing scheme, only for the move to be “ruled out as unfeasible”. NHST&T subsequently agreed call-handler contracts with the outsourcers Serco and Sitel for “up to £720m” to deliver 18,000 handlers.

The NAO said that by mid-June, the so-called “utilisation rate” for those staff – reflecting the proportion of time they worked during their paid hours – was just 1%, effectively meaning they had little work to do.

The watchdog said DHSC had “no flexibility to reduce the number of call handlers under the original contracts” and had to wait until they had run their three-month initial course before it could negotiate new terms and reduce staff numbers to 12,000. The NAO said utilisation rates remained “well below a target of 50% throughout September and for much of October”.

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“This means substantial public resources have been spent on staff who provided minimal services in return,” it said.

The NAO said an internal government review that looked at the test and trace approaches of 15 other countries found some had used private-sector outsourcing to increase testing capacity, but none had done so to increase tracing capacity. It said that was “generally built up from existing tracing and public health expertise” in the other nations.

'Unclear accountability'
Auditors also noted, that despite the organisation sitting within the Department for Health and Social Care’s finance, information and staffing controls, the executive chair of the programme Baroness Dido Harding reports to prime minister Boris Johnson and cabinet secretary Simon Case, rather than DHSC’s ministers or permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormald.

The report says that while the direct reporting to Johnson and Case was a “clear indication of NHST&T’s importance to government as a whole”, the dual reporting lines brought “risks of unclear accountability”. 

The NAO accepted that it had seen no evidence that those accountability risks had materialised, but said it had not undertaken a systematic review to investigate the issue in depth.

Responding to the NAO report, a DHSC spokesperson said: ““Twenty percent of people in the UK have been tested at least once, more than 41 million tests have been carried out and more than two million people in England have been contacted and notified to self-isolate. Turnaround times have been steadily improving over recent weeks, and the latest performance figures show that tracing has dramatically improved, now reaching 85.7% of contacts.”

But the departmental representative acknowledged there was “more to do”.

“We are determined to ensure that NHS Test and Trace plays an even more effective role in stopping the spread of the virus,” they said.


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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