Wed 28 July 2021

A ‘Blitz spirit’ of paranoia epitomised the work of the outsourcing company, according to an individual who worked for it

On arrival, we were given a tour of the testing site. It seemed like the set of a mid-par TV drama about a nation grappling with an apocalypse. There were cones and shipping containers and checkpoints. There were patients trapped in their cars, surrounded by medics mummified in protective equipment.

The gravity of the task hit me later that day, as I watched two grown men recoil when an elderly-man unwound his window, nervously shouting at him: “Keep your window shut sir, keep your window shut sir.”

There were men and women loitering, wearing hi-visibility jackets marked with the blue NHS ‘Test and Trace’ logo. On the right arm read another logo: Serco, the private outsourcing company managing 25% of regional test sites and running a significant part of the tracing operation as well.

It was the middle of July 2020, a moment of relative calm in the Coronavirus pandemic when most pub conversations revolved around whether the whole thing was in fact over. Or, to be specific, whether the prospect of a “world-beating” Test and Trace system would be able to quell the worst of what was potentially to come.

I was to be working on a Mobile Testing Unit (MTU) – a small, mobile team that could set up impromptu testing sites in car parks, park and rides etc. to respond to local flare-ups in cases.

One team leader accidentally put an entire bag of tests in the bin and then blamed his team for allowing him to do so. Not long after, he was promoted to manage another testing site.

As the tour of the testing site ended, a speech was given that has since lodged in my memory. We were told that our work was of great importance and that, one day, we would be able to tell our grandkids about the role we had all played. This was not the first allusion to war that had been made – the evoking of the much-fabled British Blitz spirit of ‘keep calm and carry on’.

It occurred to me that perhaps I had by sheer chance – scrolling through job websites at a fortuitous time – potentially stumbled into the writing of a new national myth. We were to be the Spitfire pilots of the day. Or, to be more specific, perhaps the Spitfire pilot equivalent would be NHS frontline staff, and the Test and the Tracers would be more akin to those who shone spotlights into the night sky in the hope of spotting the silhouettes of bombers.

For anyone unfamiliar with Serco, its stamp can be found on six privately-run prisons; waste and recycling facilities in 20 local authorities; the controversial Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre; cycle hire schemes in London and Edinburgh; NHS services (vague sounding ‘facilities management’ and ‘care coordination’); satellite schemes; and a specialist surface finishing team for RAF planes and helicopters (decorating planes, essentially).

Serco’s CEO is Rupert Soames, the great-grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. According to its website, its values are: trust, care, innovation, and pride. The firm employs more than 30,000 people in the UK and has its fingers well and truly lodged in the Government pie.

As documented by Byline Times, the company is no stranger to controversy. It therefore seemed as though I had been placed at the centre of a moment of national and global crisis and an ideological experiment. In such a moment, could Serco be transformed into a national treasure, coming to deserve its place on the same hi-visibility jacket which proudly bore the NHS logo? Could our Blitz be successfully outsourced?

Chronic Paranoia

Within the first few weeks, however, the grand rhetoric faded – replaced by an entrenched paranoia, exuded by management staff, about leaks and negative media coverage.

The Blitz spirit morphed from being an effort to combat the virus, to a Blitz-spirit primarily aimed at defending Serco against criticism.

The nation’s contact tracing operation was coming under media fire and we were given talks about the importance of preventing journalists from filming or entering or gaining any sort of information. We should be on the lookout, according to management. Serco’s contract was delicate and any details surrounding it should be protected.

In terms of the actual working conditions of an MTU under Serco, it is difficult to say whether things would have been significantly different if all of the operation was managed by local public health teams – something that has been argued for, compellingly. What I can say is that the threat and fear of media exposure fundamentally shaped the work of Serco.

For example, although we received training from military personnel who had previously been running the MTUs, most team leaders had little, in most cases no, public health experience. There were spates of hirings and firings – perhaps because there was essentially no job screening aside from simply being asked if you could turn up on a certain day and time.

There was an almost ‘back to school’ playground environment: the free lunch; the long stretches of time spent standing in empty car parks, being confronted with the paradoxical hope that things will start to get busier and the days go quicker, while simultaneously hoping for the exact opposite – knowing what a busy testing site may potentially signify.

It is only natural that, in a job requiring a great deal of waiting, that boredom – or the attempt to rid yourself of it – becomes a priority. This led to above-average workplace drama and gossip. In the context of Serco’s anxiety about negative media coverage, and by extension the contract potentially being cut short, all gossip had an added dimension of the stakes being raised. Serco’s paranoia trickled down the ranks, spreading through the chain of command.

This created a team spirit entirely in contrast to the Blitz spirit of camaraderie that has been written into the nation’s folklore: management mistrusted staff, viewing them as the unit of a latent PR disaster; while staff saw management as incompetent and disorganised.

One team leader accidentally put an entire bag of tests in the bin and then blamed his team for allowing him to do so. Not long after, he was promoted to manage another testing site.

Mistakes happen in every working environment. But what happened at my testing site was a complete misunderstanding of every error, probably borne from perspective-warping paranoia. Small mistakes were often taken out of all proportion, while significant errors were dismissed as trivial. For anyone associated with mistakes, the priority was to attribute blame to someone else.

Perhaps I could be accused of nit-picking. But, ultimately, my experience is not so surprising. Serco is a private company – its core interests are protecting its image and its finances. In this context, it seemed to focus more on the spin war of attrition than the greater national effort.

When my team was asked to share positive stories of working on an MTU, which Serco could pump out as PR, I remember a shared laughter of incredulity. There was a sense that we were ‘all in this together’ – but for all the wrong reasons.

This article was written under a pseudonym


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