Scottish contact tracing in 'disarray' as Government hires private companies to boost over-stretched system

Georgina Hayes
·4-min read
Latest data from Public Health Scotland shows that in the week ending October 18, it took over 72 hours for contact tracing to be completed in 1,200 cases - a 5.1 per cent increase on the week before - AFP
Latest data from Public Health Scotland shows that in the week ending October 18, it took over 72 hours for contact tracing to be completed in 1,200 cases - a 5.1 per cent increase on the week before - AFP

The Scottish NHS has turned to private companies to boost contact tracer numbers as it emerged the over-stretched system has been relying on sending text messages to tell people to self-isolate.

Opposition parties have claimed that the vital service is in “disarray”, prompting the First Minister to deny that the system is being outsourced after it was revealed that the Scottish Government has agreed a £1.3 million deal with call centre company Ascensos for “immediate and rapid deployment” of additional contact tracers.

Barrhead Travel has also been hired to provide "highly skilled personnel” who may otherwise have been made redundant due to the impact of the pandemic on the travel industry.

It comes as latest data from Public Health Scotland shows that in the week ending October 18, it took over 72 hours for contact tracing to be completed in 1,200 cases - a 5.1 per cent increase on the week before. The system has also failed to contact 2,249 people who have tested positive for the virus since at least June, including 672 people in the week ending 18 October.

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Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The fact that the SNP Government are outsourcing this work is a sign that they are struggling to deliver an effective tracing system especially when they have previously criticised the use of such outsourcing by the Conservative Government.”

Speaking at the coronavirus daily briefing, Nicola Sturgeon denied that the government is outsourcing “any part” of the contact tracing system.

“Test and Protect Scotland is an NHS service. We have not and we will not outsource any part of the contact tracing system, and no part of our contact tracing system is run by the private sector. I want to make that very clear,” she said.

Instead a “small number” of staff have been recruited on a “short term” basis from private companies, she said, as the system migrates from one that “in its early days was staffed by people within the NHS who could be called on” to a “permanent workforce”.

“This small number of staff recruited from the private sector work within the NHS system,” the First Minister insisted. “They are not working for a private company that has been given responsibility for running contact tracing, and that’s a very different thing.”

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has accused the Scottish Government of "shifting answers" - PA
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has accused the Scottish Government of "shifting answers" - PA

However Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross MSP has accused the SNP of “shifting answers” and bringing in private firms “behind closed doors”.

“It’s a ridiculous situation when we’re being asked to believe that apparently it’s not outsourcing if the SNP are the ones doing the outsourcing,” he said.

“When they get caught out, they don’t own up to their shortcomings. They tried again today to claim they met their promise to recruit 2,000 contact tracers by June, when it’s plain that they didn’t.

“The real problem is not the recruiting of Barrhead Travel staff for contact tracing efforts, it’s the fact the SNP tried to keep it hidden and denied what’s really going on.

“They are consistently keeping information secret, whether it’s about the scandal of care home deaths or the lack of Test and Protect data that experts say they need.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour has accused the Test and Protect system as “cutting corners” and in need of a “massive reboot”.

Monica Lennon, the party's health spokeswoman, said: “Speed is critical to hunting down the virus and protecting lives, so the fact that contact tracing is taking longer is a very serious matter.

“For months, Scottish Labour has been asking the Scottish Government to deliver the 2,000 contact tracers they promised.

“Outsourcing contact tracing to private firms and cutting corners by sending people who might have been in contact with Covid-19 nothing more than a text message, are the latest signs that ministers have dropped the ball on Test and Protect.

“The Scottish Government must publish immediately details of all contracts with third parties, including their value and the processes used to award public money.

“Secondly, they must reboot Test and Protect and set out in detail how they will speed up contact tracing.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We had set a national target of having 2,000 contact tracers available by end-May, and we met that target, with staff being deployed from across our health service. Any suggestion otherwise is incorrect.

“All contact tracing in Scotland is NHS led. Nearly all National Contact Tracing Centre employees work from home, and the majority of recruited contact tracers will also work from home, which is in line with Scottish Government requirements. All data is held and stored securely on the NHS Scotland Contact Tracing Case Management System; recruited contact tracers may use their company’s equipment to access the system, but the system is wholly owned, operated and managed by NHS Scotland.”

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