United Kingdom

Serco boss blasts back at critics of Test and Trace 'shambles'

Under fire Serco chief executive Rupert Soames has launched a bitter attack on critics who he says have thrown 'vitriol' at his firm. He insists the Government's Test and Trace system is 'more world beating than a shambles'.

In an irate defence of Serco's involvement in the programme, launched in May to ramp up testing and locate those infected, Soames complains his firm has become a 'poster-ghoul' and says critics could have the same impact as the 'anti-vaxxer' conspiracy theorists opposed to vaccinations. 

His strongly worded rebuke – in which he repeatedly lambasts Labour MPs – is likely to add fuel to the row over the Government's use of private contractors to combat the pandemic, particularly in the Test and Trace programme. 

Scapegoat: Rupert Soames says private firms like his have been vilified

DON'T BLAME PRIVATE FIRMS, WHAT WE DID IS WORLD-LEADING

Scepticism is a peculiarly British trait. The idea that we might actually be able to do something well seems too absurd to contemplate. 

Before the 2012 Olympics, the general view was it was all going to be a disaster: the stadiums would be late; the Tube drivers would go on strike; the opening ceremony would be toe-curlingly embarrassing. In the event, Britain delivered the best summer Olympics ever. 

In May, the Prime Minister said at the launch of NHS Test and Trace that we were going to have a 'world-beating' system by the end of June. Since then the NHS and Public Health England have been judged against that benchmark, and throughout the summer it was clear that our system was far behind that of other countries. 

The app had to be withdrawn, tracers and call handlers were twiddling their fingers, and in early September the explosion of demand as universities and schools returned overwhelmed the system. 

Naturally, and properly, the Opposition set about calling Government to account, and pointed at every slip. Except it had a problem: how to criticise the Government without implicitly criticising our beloved NHS? 

It found a neat solution: pin the blame on the private companies who were involved. Unfortunately for my company, it needed a posterghoul to point at, and chose Serco as the symbol of all that is wrong. 

Some MPs promoted a hashtag on Twitter #sercotestandtrace, and even senior Labour front-benchers threw vitriol at Serco, despite being well aware that we actually play quite a small, and clearly defined, role in the system, providing a quarter of the testing sites, and half of the call handlers who follow up the work of the NHS tracers. 

To the Opposition, the 9,000 people Serco have provided to NHS Test and Trace were a public (in)convenience, and it treated them as such.

'Shambles' has become the catchphrase over the past few weeks. The Opposition has been successful in making it commonly believed that NHS Test and Trace is an irredeemable failure, caused by capitalist fat cats whose greed is matched only by their incompetence. A clear win for the doomsters and gloomsters. 

History may prove this line of attack to be a good starter, but a poor finisher. As in 2012, I think we are going to surprise ourselves by what the NHS, Public Health England, along with 40,000 people from the private sector and universities, have achieved. 

Powered by ingenuity, a sense of the national importance of our shared mission, a great deal of sweat and not much sleep, a Test and Trace system has been built which is – drum roll – the largest medical testing programme in European history. By a long way. 

The figures of what has been delivered are mind-boggling. More than 16million tests given to 9million people since May 28 – 5.3million tests delivered in the past four weeks alone. On a weekly basis, that is 60 per cent more than Germany, 40 per cent more than France, and more than double Spain and Italy. That sounds more like 'world-leading' than 'a shambles'. 

Some 1.2million close contacts have been identified since May, 252,000 in the past week; 843,000 individual contacts reached and asked to isolate. The new app has been downloaded 17million times. Testing capacity will reach 500,000 a day within the next few weeks – far outstripping the capacity of our European neighbours. 

Of course, there are problems. People go to mobile test sites and find they have moved on; some results are lost or, frustratingly, delayed. No system touching more than 1.2million people a week and growing at speed is going to be error-free. More worryingly, there are signs that people may be reluctant to engage with the process. About 20 per cent of people who have tested positive don't give any details of contacts; compliance amongst people asked to isolate is lower than it should be. The system will have to adapt as we gain experience. 

My plea to politicians is this: by claiming that NHS Test and Trace is 'collapsing', when it is not; by trivialising the debate and saying that it is run by private companies, when it is not; by spreading misinformation, trust will be undermined in a vital public health programme, the very foundation of our fight against Covid-19, and people may be discouraged from engaging with it.

It's too easy for someone asked to isolate to say: 'Why should I comply with a system that my MP says is a shambles?' It may seem like playful knockabout politics; but words have consequences. 

There is precedent for this: antivaxxers, whose campaign against the MMR vaccine has done untold damage to children's health. Respectfully, I say to the politicians: you may not be an anti-vaxxer, but please don't behave like one. 

                                                                        Rupert Soames, Chief executive of Serco 

Writing in The Mail on Sunday today, Soames admits underwhelming efforts in the summer left the UK's system trailing other nations and says the service was overloaded by returning university students in early September. 

But he claims the scale of the operation is now 'mind-boggling', citing 16million tests given to 9million people overall – 5.3million of those tests in the past four weeks. 

Despite thrusting himself into the centre of an ever-more toxic debate, he downplays his firm's role, placing the NHS and Public Health England firmly in the firing line. He says Serco 'plays quite a small and clearly defined role in the system' providing a quarter of testing sites and half of contact tracers. 

Serco last week labelled its work on the troubled system 'outstanding' and raised group profit forecasts for the year to as much as £165million. The figures incensed critics who have complained the Government has handed large sums to private firms. 

The controversy has reignited a long-running debate over the outsourcing of key Government activities to the private sector. 

Critics say local authority teams have proved more effective at tracing individuals, and money should be used for saving lives rather than contributing to profit. One said the situation confirmed that the waste and inefficiency of healthcare privatisation was 'off the scale'. 

This month it emerged that more than 1,000 consultants from Deloitte are working on Test and Trace with day rates up to £2,360.

Soames, a grandson of Winston Churchill, is brother to the former Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames. His wife Camilla is a Conservative donor. Health Minister Edward Argar is a former Serco lobbyist. 

Another firm, Randox Laboratories, which pays former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson as an adviser, received £133million for Covid-19 testing. Thousands of test kits had to be recalled. 

Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves said last month: 'This pandemic has taught us just how addicted this Government is to outsourcing. It is unacceptable that so many public contracts have been awarded without tender to Conservative friends and donors.' 

Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, has defended the use of expensive consultants. He said: 'It's absolutely vital that we have all the expertise required from the private and public sector to improve testing.' 

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