Outsourced contact tracing service fails to contact 250,000 people, analysis says

The outsourced Test and Trace system has failed to reach nearly a quarter of a million close contacts of people who have tested positive for coronavirus, according to a new analysis.


Private firms Serco and Sitel failed to contact 245,481 contacts in England, either online or from call centres over four months. Meaning they missed nearly 40% of contacts, the figures show. Labour said the figures show Test and Trace is “on the verge of collapse”. The party also said these figures highlight the need for a short national lockdown to allow the government to fix the system.

HEALTH Coronavirus Testing
(PA Graphics)

Poor contact tracing, greater restrictions

The government defended the system, saying Test and Trace is “breaking chains of transmission”. According to the government, the system had told 900,000 people to isolate. Boris Johnson pledged in May that the system, which has cost £12bn, would be “world-beating”. A successful tracing programme has long been hailed as a way to ease lockdown measures.

Labour’s analysis of official figures released this week showed more than 26,000 people in the week up to 7 October weren’t contacted in North-West England. This is where the Liverpool region and Lancashire have been plunged into the severest restrictions. The prime minister has threatened to impose the Tier 3 measures on neighbouring Greater Manchester even if local leaders don’t consent. They’ve been resisting because they’re demanding greater financial support from the government.

Shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves said:

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We are at a decisive moment in our efforts to tackle coronavirus, and these figures are a new low for a test and trace system on the verge of collapse.

The Government is wasting hundreds of millions on a system that doesn’t seem to function or even use basic common sense.

The Prime Minister must act now to reverse this trend. That is why Labour is calling for a short, sharp circuit break to fix testing, protect the NHS and save lives.

Communication breakdown

The figures showed that the private firms did reach 372,458 contacts in the period of the data, 28 May to 7 October.

“Complex” cases – which include outbreaks linked to hospitals, care homes, prisons, or schools – are handled by local health protection teams. Statistics show that these have had far higher rates of success. A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said:

We’re continuing to drive forward local contact tracing as part of our commitment to being locally led, with more than 100 Local Tracing Partnerships now operating, and more to come.

They added that, when including local teams, 84% of contacts had been traced “where communication details were provided”.

This week Labour leader Keir Starmer called for Johnson to implement a two to three-week national lockdown so test and trace can be improved. Labour’s proposed lockdown would not involve closing schools, which goes against the advice of experts.

On 16 October, Johnson continued to resist the move, which has been suggested by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). But he said he “can’t rule anything out”. SAGE has also said in recently published documents that the Test and Trace system was only having a “marginal impact” on coronavirus (Covid-19) transmission.

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