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Private companies face no accountability for the failure of test and trace – however poorly the service is run

The biggest horror of all is that no one is taking responsibility, least of all the private companies raking in £12 billion pounds to provide this service, writes Stella Creasy MP. | PA Images

3 min read

Everyday test and trace is trying the patience of thousands of worried families. It's no accident that multi-million, extendable contracts explicitly absolve private companies of any performance penalties.

When the World Health Organisation begged every nation to ‘test test test’ to defeat coronavirus, they did not mean Governments should test the goodwill of the public.

Everyday the so-called NHS test and trace service is trying the patience of thousands of worried families who have spent hours online trying – and failing – to book an appointment. MPs are deluged with constituents furious about being told to go hundreds of miles to centres – or waiting days on end for a result.

Over the summer, an estimated 35,000 tests were voided as they were too late to the labs to be processed. A vital week has been lost in this fight because of a spreadsheet failure, as 16,000 positive tests were not recorded properly meaning possibly 50,000 people who have been in touch with someone with the virus are unaware.

Local public health teams are out of the loop, and schoolkids, students and sales people are all self-isolating unsure if they are infectious – a mess putting jobs, education and health outcomes all at risk.

Yet the biggest horror of all is that no one is taking responsibility, least of all the private companies raking in £12 billion pounds to provide this service.

Accountability for this chaos appears to have disappeared without a trace

The government rejected a proposal led by local public health planners, and instead sliced up and gave the contract to private companies. This week the Secretary of State chastised me for raising concerns about this, arguing I should ‘stop picking on a small number of the many, many cogs in the wheel’.

Parliamentary questions show there are many, many cogs, each regularly out of alignment with each other. Asking for explanations, Ministers have told me ‘The contract with Deloitte does not include managing access to Covid-19 testing’; ‘Serco is contracted to operate a proportion of the test locations. It is not responsible for the scheduling of access to Covid-19 tests’; ‘The contract with Randox relates to the performance of laboratory testing following receipt of test samples. It does not relate to the public being able to secure a test’.  

This echoes the problems of rail privatisation – with one company paid to manage the testing centre, another the testing labs, and another the booking service which means each can blame each other as the service grinds to a halt.

Delays at the labs have meant those running the testing centres were left trying to manage demand to limit the backlog of tests getting worse. The Secretary of State admitted the problem with the spreadsheets had been known about until July, but it took until October for different service providers to talk to each other and fix it.

Whatever their differences, these companies all share a common get out of jail card. Their multi-million, extendable contracts explicitly absolve them of any performance penalties however poorly the service is run. This is not it seems by accident. Inexplicably, and in contrast to other public contracts, their terms and conditions state ‘For the avoidance of doubt, service penalties are not applicable’.

Despite the repeated problems, it also appears we cannot exit these hastily drawn up deals as they give the companies a veto on cancelling.

With our economy and our health, it is vital we can depend on being able to track this virus and so prevent the infection from spreading. Nevertheless, accountability for this chaos appears to have disappeared without a trace - and the only ones paying the price for this failed service will be the public.


Stella Creasy is the Labour MP for Walthamstow.

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