Leaked emails and texts seen by The Lowdown and other news sites have revealed moves to bolster the clinical tier of the government’s contact-tracing programme with untrained staff from outsourcing giant Serco and call centre outfit Sitel.

Shortly before the prime minister belatedly admitted last week to serious failings in the contact-tracing programme, and as cases of covid-19 continued to surge across the north of England, clinical caseworkers already working in ‘tier 2’ – recruited by the Department of Health & Social Care-owned agency NHS Professionals (NHSP) – were told of the moves in an email and a series of mobile phone texts.

The email, from NHSP and dated 20 October, spoke of changes being “introduced… to provide the additional capacity to meet this surge”, and told existing staff that a number of “experienced agents from Serco and Sitel” would soon be assisting them, albeit focusing primarily on “gathering information”.

Follow-up reports in the Independent and on Sky News found damning evidence of how little clinical experience these “agents” might actually possess. This suggests that NHSP may have expediently ditched its previous insistence that tier 2 staff should be “registered with an appropriate health- or science-related professional body and are working, or have worked, at a [Clinical] Band 6 level”. 

Despite this relaxation – and despite ‘call to action’ texts to existing tier 2 staff in early October alerting them to an “urgent requirement to fill additional shifts”, upping the number of hours that staff could work each week from 42 to 60 – NHSP has also now halted direct recruitment of clinical contact caseworkers, telling potential applicants online that it is “not progressing any further applications at this stage”. 

Whether the move to bring in staff from Serco and Sitel is about boosting capacity or just boosting private sector participation is unclear, but in its 20 October email NHSP seemed unconcerned about the lack of clinical expertise among the latest tier 2 recruits. It merely advised recipients that “new starters” from Serco and Sitel “will require additional support as they transition from their initial training into experienced caseworkers”.

That support hasn’t always been available to contact tracers. Online news site openDemocracy last month revealed that customer service staff from holiday company Hays Travel, working as subcontractors on Serco’s test and trace operation, complained of insufficient training being provided. One said, “We are not medically trained and I believe members of the public believed they were ringing medically trained people.”

When we spoke to one person working in the tier 2 group – who asked not to be named – about the move to bring Serco and Sitel employees on board, they were clearly disturbed by the prospect.

“I thought tier 2 staff were the ‘clinical’ support level, drawn from professions which are regulated by bodies like the Health & Care Professions Council, Social Work England or the Nursing & Midwifery Council.

“Opening the tier to Serco and Sitel staff brings into question the value the government sees in having a ‘clinical’ input over the need to process the volume of cases. [These] employees may be experienced call centre staff, but can they identify a safeguarding situation?”

However, as well as the clinical and safety concerns raised by this latest policy decision from the Department of Health & Social Care, it’s helpful to consider its wider political implications. 

Three years ago the department abandoned its plan to sell off NHSP. It was reported at the time that one of the leading bidders for the company was Serco, whose chief executive said earlier this year, in relation to its contact tracing contract, “If it succeeds… it will go a long way in cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain.”


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