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Sun 25 October 2020
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The Government’s strategy of shelling out billions to private sector firms is not working, argues Labour MP Rachel Reeves

The UK is standing at a crossroads in the fight against the Coronavirus. For eight months, people have made unprecedented changes in order to protect the NHS and save lives. The public has shown extraordinary willingness to make sacrifices in our effort against the virus. This reflects the best of our country.

While the British people are doing their bit, the Government is falling short. Crucial elements in the long-term strategy against COVID-19 simply aren’t working. Take the “world-beating” contact tracing system we were promised by the Prime Minister six months ago. Still nowhere to be found. Instead, the Government has indulged its addiction to the failed model of outsourcing, by handing over huge contracts on contact tracing to notorious companies Serco and Sitel.

This has had disastrous consequences. The Serco-led national contact tracing system is failing on almost every measure. It is failing to reach enough people who come into contact with someone with the virus. It is not getting information to local councils who need to act on it. It is handing over hundreds of millions of taxpayer money to Serco instead of local public health teams – something SAGE scientists claim is having a “marginal” impact on slowing the spread.

None of this was inevitable. All across England, local councils have stepped up to establish their own contact tracing regimes as the Government throws common sense out the window and wastes money. From Cumbria to Peterborough, and across the hard-hit Pennine region in Calderdale, Bradford, Blackburn and Oldham, local councils are using their local expertise – and it’s working. In these places and others, including across Wales, we have seen more people being traced, with rates close to 100% in some cases – putting to shame the 70% seen with the Serco model.

But this approach on contact tracing, where the work is outsourced to huge companies while our local public services are overlooked, is not a new one for the Tories – and it has worryingly become a cornerstone of their Coronavirus response.

The reality is that Boris Johnson’s Government is simply addicted to outsourcing. For them, the challenges and hardship of the Coronavirus crisis have been an opportunity to pour millions of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money into corporate giants like Serco and Deloitte.

While Coronavirus has brought disruption and heartache to most of us, it has been a gold rush for outsourcing companies. Last month it was revealed that Randox, the private company awarded an £133 million contract at the start of the crisis, had to void 35,000 tests since August. And just yesterday, as I was standing in the House of Commons chamber and asking the Government to urgently rethink this approach, it was revealed that the Government is paying senior consultants almost £7,000 a-day, when our care workers are often paid less than £10 an-hour.

This isn’t just wasteful – it defies common sense. The Government may be far down the road with its outsourcing model. But it doesn’t have to stay completely glued to this approach. Even if it is bent on keeping Serco attached to our tracing system instead of handing over control to local councils, there are practical, logical steps it can take to fix this system and make it work better on a community level. 

With little regard for any transparency or value for money, this Conservative Government has abandoned common sense to waste billions indulging its addiction to outsourcing.

Labour’s message to the Government is simple. Face up to the fact your misguided reliance on outsourcing isn’t working. Sack Serco and transfer those resources to local councils. Give them proper responsibility over the contact tracing system, which has led to better results for some time now. That will allow us to take control of the virus, save lives, and protect the NHS.

Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office


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