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Test, track and trace: campaigners protest involvement of outsourcing giant

Campaigners call for track and trace responsibility to be returned to local public health teams.

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Socially distanced demonstrators outside the Town Hall yesterday.

Dozens of campaigners gathered outside Sheffield Town Hall yesterday to protest against the involvement of outsourcing giant Serco in the government's coronavirus test, track and trace programme.

They want to see responsibility for the programme returned to local public health teams, who they say have the expertise and community knowledge to trace coronavirus contacts.

"The evidence is abundantly clear - the privatised national test, track and trace system has catastrophically failed," said Pascale Robinson of We Own It, which coordinated socially-distanced demonstrations across the country.

"It’s right that the government has recognised that a new approach is needed. But a system where national call centre staff managed by a private company make the initial call and local teams can escalate later just isn’t fit for purpose."

The government has recently announced changes to the controversial scheme, which public ownership campaigners say has been mismanaged by Serco.

Some staff from the centralised track and trace call centres will now work with local public health teams, who will follow up a contact if the national tracing team aren't able to reach them.

Yesterday's demonstration was organised locally by anti-privatisation campaign Sheffield Save Our NHS.

"This is yet another example of the government’s privatisation of our NHS when we need it the most," said campaign secretary Ruth Milsom.

“Here in Sheffield, health professionals and activists have been piloting our own locally-based test, track and support system. We demand that the government fund Sheffield and other councils to develop such systems rather than just hand over cash to the private sector."

One contact tracer working for Serco told the BBC that she hadn't been asked to make a single phone call in a 38 hour working week, and instead spent the time watching Netflix.

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In another embarrassing incident, the company accidentally shared the email addresses of 296 of its own contact tracers in a breach of data protection rules.

This has led some councils, including Sandwell, Calderdale and Preston, to set up their own test, track and trace services in collaboration with local public health teams.

"We need a localised system run by the people who know what they’re doing and can deliver it effectively," said Robinson.

"That means we can’t continue with the farce of Serco heading up the programme. Local councils and Public Health England teams must be given the £302 million currently allocated for potential contract extensions with Serco. That’s what people across the country are demanding today.”

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