Launched in late May, NHS Test and Trace is yet to become the “world beating” system promised by Boris Johnson. The £12 billion programme was hampered first by limited testing capacity, and then delays and inefficiencies after services were outsourced to private firms like Serco.
This weekend, health experts once again said the system needs a radical rethink, with one professor suggesting an increase in the number of small test labs, paid for by the closure of the “failing central call centres” outsourced to those private companies.
Below, a whistleblower who has been working at one of the call centres since May describes just how inefficient they are.
I work in live entertainment, and at the beginning of March I was due to embark on a major six-week European tour. Suddenly, I had no work prospects at all.
I heard about the contact tracing role in May through a friend, who also works in live events. The company I applied for is a call services provider, who’ve been subcontracted by Serco, who in turn were subcontracted by the government’s Test & Trace programme [soon to become the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP)]. I thought, ‘At least I’ll be doing my bit.’ But that aspect of it disappeared quickly, around the time training started.
It was about six weeks of Zoom calls, sometimes with these two guest “facilitators”. One of them was an actor, but his last acting job was a bit part in 2002 or something – I know because I checked his IMDB. I would say they were both style over substance, but neither of them had any style – they were facilitating nothing. Meanwhile, the best training material we had – an interactive PDF of the script we have to read on calls – was put together by someone on my team, on £9 an hour.
Advice given in an internal training manual to contact tracers.
There was a period of about two months where barely anything happened, because the system wasn’t up and running yet. So yes – we'd watch a lot of Netflix, and do a lot of nothing. We felt guilty, but a lot of us were among the 3 million self-employed who’ve fallen through the cracks in the furlough system. We couldn’t work, but got no state support.
The system is now “working”, but if anything it’s worse, because it’s so badly designed. I don’t know who’s responsible – the government, Serco, someone else. But what we see is a person's name, their mobile number and an “Account ID”. You would assume that the Account ID was for the person, but in fact a new one is created for each interaction that person has had. So if you were out with three mates, and they all tested positive, you would have one call for each of them. I’d call you, and then two of my colleagues would call you, and each of us would have to tell you the exact same thing, word for word.
It’s worse with families. If your name is given as the parent or guardian, you'll get a call for each of the people you’ve been in contact with, then an extra call for each of the people that each of your children has been in contact with. A lot of the time, both parents seem to be getting duplicate calls for each child. That then multiplies the followup calls, too, because for each contact you get another call on day three, nine and 14 of your isolation.
A section of the "clunky" script advising what to do/say if the "contact is deceased".
I'm speaking to people who are getting ten to 15 calls in a day. Several times in the past week I’ve spoken to people who’ve had more than 30. We say at the start of each call, “This might take up to 20 minutes,” and even though I usually do it in ten, that’s a lot of time. The computer systems we use are slow, and the script we have to follow is really clunky. We've been told we can diverge from it a little bit, but our calls are recorded and quality assessed out of 100, with 85 as a pass. If you miss a section of information, that could be minus ten.
If people threaten to hang up, we say, “The options I have are to go through the call, or I have to put down that you're refusing to cooperate.” To which people’s natural reaction is obviously, "Well I'm not refusing to cooperate, I've already spoken to you nine fucking times. Why do you want me to tell you the same shit over and over again?” And then we have to tell them that their details could be referred to the local authority, and they could be fined.
It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s more insidious than that. A lot of these people are vulnerable, they’re in a very stressful situation anyway, and we’re basically harassing them. I spent 50 minutes on the phone recently to an elderly man whose wife has Alzheimer’s, and was in hospital with COVID, but wouldn’t eat or drink unless he was there to help calm her down. The doctors had said it was OK for him to go in and see her if he drove there and put on the full PPE – gown, visor, face mask, gloves – which was pretty horrible and scary for him, and for his wife, who's already confused. He was very upset, but trying to be strong and explain this to me calmly. And I had to say, “I have to read you this bit, which says, ‘If you don't self-isolate, you could be fined.’”
I understand everyone has to stick to these rules, but I wish this process had been better thought through, and I'd been able to get him through to somebody who could help, rather than just having to toss him back into the system with a red flag against his name, knowing he’ll just get another call.
I would guess around 80 percent of the people I call now have already had the same call from one of my colleagues. It’s such a waste of the general public’s time to duplicate like that, such a waste of our time, and such a waste of taxpayer’s money. I’m sure Serco are probably a bunch of cunts, but my impression is that it’s Test & Trace, or NIHP, or whatever they want to call the government agency, that’s the problem. It’s the way they’ve designed their system, and it's Dido Harding at the top.
There are so many silly things. Like, nowhere along the line has somebody gone, “Maybe we just get someone that actually understands conversation to look at the script?” It’s so badly written. When you think of something that's going to be used thousands of times per day over the next few months, why wouldn't you pay somebody to write it properly? I’m no expert, but honestly, in five minutes I could make it transformationally better. And it's like well, if you haven't even bothered to do that, then what else haven't you bothered to do?
When asked for comment on the points raised in this article, a spokesperson for Serco said: “The Test and Trace scheme is designed, managed and sized by DHSC [the Department of Health & Social Care] so most of the points that you raise need to be addressed by them.”
A spokesperson for the DHSC didn’t respond to the whistleblower’s specific allegations, but said: “Since NHS Test and Trace launched, contact tracers have reached more than 1.4 million people and asked them to self-isolate.” They also accepted that, in some cases, people may be contacted more than once, and said they were working to try to minimise the number who were.