Exclusive: Serco Subcontracted NHS Test And Trace Work To Firm Accused Of “Meltdown" On Government Call Centre Contract
Serco have come under fire for their outsourcing work on test and trace
A company which has been heavily criticised for their handling of another government contract was awarded work on the NHS Test and Trace programme by Serco, PoliticsHome can reveal.
HGS UK was awarded the contact tracing role by the outsourcing giant during the early months of the NHS Test and Trace programme, despite concerns that previously arose over their running of the Defence Solicitor Call Centre (DSCC).
But despite the criticism, Serco awarded the firm work conducting contact tracing on behalf of England's test and trace system.
In June last year, ministers confirmed that Serco had subcontracted thousands of staff from a group of 29 subcontractors, but refused to reveal the full list of companies involved due to commercial sensitivity.
PoliticsHome previously revealed that among those companies was US based firm, Concentrix, who were behind a major tax credits debacle, as well as two other firms linked with debt collection services.
It is believed the contract with HGS UK ended in August last year after 6,000 staff were cut following criticism from local authorities that the system was not reaching enough contacts.
The HGS UK-managed DSCC call centre, which is run on behalf of the government's Legal Aid Agency, is used by police to contact a detainee's solicitor or request a duty solicitor.
Since the firm took over the contract in 2019, they have faced repeated criticism, including from the Law Society, which accused them of presiding over a "meltdown" in the service following their handover from a previous firm.
In September 2019, the Law Society claimed that the LAA and HGS had admitted the service had fallen "far below acceptable standards" after the lines went down for almost two days during "scheduled maintenance".
In January 2020, the firm faced further criticism after their website crashed for almost five hours.
Speaking at the time, Simon Davis, president of the Law Society, said the firm were paid "out of public money" to run the service, adding the failings had a "direct impact on the ability of people detained in police stations to access justice".
Details of HGS UK’s involvement with NHS Test and Trace comes after a damning report from the National Audit Office published in December hit out at the role of outsourcing firms who were initially handed contracts worth £720m to run parts of the NHS Test and Trace system.
The report claimed that by mid-June staff worked just 1% of the time they were paid for as cases fell, but that the service had also "struggled" to reach contacts during busier periods.
But the revelation has prompted anger from shadow cabinet minister Rachel Reeves who called on the government to finally reveal the full list of subcontracted firms.
"Given what we already know of those Serco has further outsourced Test & Trace to this is deeply concerning but hardly surprising," she told PoliticsHome.
"Time and time again Labour has asked the government to reveal who the twenty plus companies Serco was outsourcing further to were, but we were told it was commercially sensitive.
"This is completely back to front – the government should be in charge of Test and Trace, not a large private company, and taxpayers should know how and where the government is spending their money, especially if it is being outsourced to a large private company like Serco, which has a poor track record and known links to the Conservative party.
"We need urgent transparency from this government, and for them to clean up their act on contracting now."
Pascale Robinson, campaigns officer at We Own It, said: "Once again we've learnt about another company with an appalling track record in delivering public services having been involved in England's test and trace system.
"It's no surprise that Serco – a company synonymous with disaster – felt it appropriate to subcontract part of its test and trace work to another company known for failure.
She added: "We know that outsourcing the Test and Trace system hasn't worked. It hasn't reached enough people who have been in contact with those who have tested positive.
"Even with a vaccine, a properly functioning, an effective test and trace system is vital to stop transmissions and limit the tragic loss of life. The only way we'll get that is by bringing its outsourcing to an end, and fund local public health teams – who have the experience and expertise – to deliver it instead."
Responding to the comments, a Serco spokesperson said: "Serco is proud to be one of the 217 public and private sector organisations supporting NHS Test and Trace which is run and managed by DHSC. Serco is one of two prime contractors providing call handlers in support of the medical call handlers from NHS Professionals.
"Our call handlers are either directly employed by Serco or through our network of subcontractors, meaning that a number of small and medium sized companies are also able to contribute to this important work."
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "Rapidly building the largest diagnostic network in British history required the expertise and experience of both public and private partners, and every penny spent has been with the aim of saving lives.
"We now have over 800 testing sites across the UK, six major laboratories processing hundreds of thousands of tests every single day and a NHS Test and Trace programme that is the biggest testing system, per head of population, of all the major countries in Europe.
"Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts."
HGS UK have been approached for comment.
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