Exclusive: Contact Tracers Have To Use Their "Best Judgment" When Escalating Cases To The Police But Have Had No Additional Training
People in England are legally required to follow self-isolation rules
Staff working on the Test and Trace system have been told to use their "best judgment" when escalating cases for possible police action, leading to fears of "inconsistency" in the application of the rules.
Concerns have been raised after new laws came into force earlier this month which made it a legal requirement for people in England to self-isolate when asked to by the NHS test and trace service.
The Department of Health and Social Care announced that police would also be provided with the details of those asked to self-isolate on a "case-by-case basis" and would be expected to enforce compliance in areas with significant outbreaks.
Under the new system, those working on Tier 3 of the tracing system, which are provided by private firms such as Serco, are expected to flag individuals who they believe are not following the self-isolation rules, with cases then handed to managers for review.
But speaking to PoliticsHome, staff working for the firms insisted they had received "no official training" on when to escalate cases or what criteria should be assessed before marking an individual as potentially in breach of the new laws.
"I haven’t received any training since I first started in April regarding the escalation of uncooperative calls, which can prove difficult as the rules change so fast that I have struggled from time to time to answer people’s questions about the rules," one contact tracer said.
"We are basically told to use our judgment and note down instances where the contact refuses to give us their information, listen to the guidance or indicates they don’t intend to isolate.
“I would not escalate if someone sounded like they are outside as so many people I speak to are elderly and many are reliant on gardening and fresh air to get through the period, but if they sounded like they were in public I absolutely would escalate."
Staff insisted supervisors were on hand to provide advice on individual cases but that the lack of official guidance meant it was likely to lead to a "large degree of inconsistency" in the system.
"We also have a huge bank of FAQ’s that help me a lot, however I do feel like a lot of it is left up to us to decide whether we access these or just use our initiative," they added.
"So on that basis I think there is likely to be a large degree of inconsistency from one agent to another on how they handle individual cases. Now that substantial fines and local authorities are involved, where they weren’t initially, I would like to see some training and even some form of situational assessment, as someone's fate could be different depending on who happens to call them."
Another contact tracer said while they had received training on how to identify vulnerable people or those at risk of domestic violence, there was no clear instructions on when to flag someone as potentially in breach of self-isolation rules.
"With regards to the ability to contact the police, we have had no official guidance on how to do so or if it is even the responsibility of those lower in the ranks to do so," they said.
"We can however flag a case/contact as uncooperative if they refuse to self-isolate and then leave a note in their file for someone to escalate it to a higher tier if needs be.
"As to what counts as suspicious, we have had no official training with regards to people breaking isolation or refusing to isolate."
"Normally an uncooperative person is very forthcoming in saying they are not going to cooperate with the advice we provide them.
“We normally flag things like 'sounds like they were driving' or 'sounds like they were outside' in the case notes but it doesn't always necessarily warrant an escalation as background noise could potentially be down to anything."
Another staff member working for one of the private firms said it was "distressing" that untrained contact tracers were being asked to police the system.
"We often call people repeatedly to check up on them during their self-isolation and to provide advice and support," they said.
"Now we are being asked to note down on their case files if it sounds like they are outside, even if they are just out enjoying their own garden.
"When I started this job I felt I was well-equipped to provide support for those going through a difficult time, so it is really distressing. I am now expected to spy on them, potentially leading to them getting an unnecessary visit from the police."
They added: "There are definitely cases where it is clear people aren't planning to follow the guidance, either because they simply don't care or because they are worried they can't afford to miss work, but there are just as many cases where it is a grey area, and we've been given no training on how to handle those."
Responding to the comments, Pascale Robinson, campaigns officer at We Own It, said: "Test and trace is a vital component to getting out of this crisis, but it's becoming increasingly clear that throughout the whole of the English programme, the government and their private sector friends are resolutely failing to deliver - and it's making our communities less safe, increasing the likelihood of tightened restrictions and needlessly risking lives.
"This is the latest in a long line of scandals that Serco have presided over, and many will remember how they gave one hour's training to staff on a breast cancer helpline previously. Their contracts for contact tracing should be ended, as should all contracts with private companies to do track and trace.
"Skilled local and regional public health teams working with local authorities is the only way out of this mess, and it's time the government realised that."
The Department of Health and Social Care and Serco have been approached for comment.