More blunders and profiteering in Tory track-and-trace scheme

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An NHS contact tracer

The government disastrously abandoned contact tracing on 12 March and delayed the lockdown while Covid-19 spread unchecked. Now the Tories are trying to make up lost ground – too late for many. These decisions have cost tens of thousands of lives.

It’s essential the tracing scheme is trusted so people willingly give their contacts’ names. And it’s essential everyone asked to self-isolate gets full pay and support, so they aren’t forced to choose between helping the community stay well and putting food on the table.

To suppress the spread of infection, people are asked to put solidarity with others first – unlike Dominic Cummings’ arrogant, selfish behaviour.

However, the Tories’ ‘track and trace’ scheme fails on all counts. Local public services should be adapted to respond to the new situation, but have been cut to the bone by years of austerity. Instead of paying public services the money needed, the government is giving huge contracts to profit-making companies.

Serco is managing 18,000 of the 25,000 call handlers and case workers along with the US call centre giant, Sitel. The centralised scheme is due to be up and running by 1 June. Recently, Serco mistakenly released nearly 300 new contact tracers’ email addresses. Another 48 were sent out a few days later by a recruitment agency.

The mistakes were probably made by overworked and overtired staff members. But couldn’t these companies set their emails to ‘blind carbon copy’ as default?

Privatisation was supposed to bring ‘free-market efficiencies’ to shake up ‘old-fashioned’ public services. Instead, it brought cost-cutting and profiteering.

Amazingly, Serco said it wouldn’t report itself for a breach of data protection. The tracers’ own training programme makes clear that it should!

Trust that personal information given to the scheme will stay confidential is vital. Without that, some with positive tests will worry their contacts might get visits from immigration officers, tax officials, police or violent ex-partners if they give out information.

Labour’s shadow minister, Rachel Reeves, lamely said: “We need reassurances that contact tracing is in safe hands.” She should have called for Serco to be sacked! Contact tracing should be done by democratically controlled, well-funded public health services.

Tax dodger

Amazon WorkSpaces has to be downloaded to run software and call centre programmes from home. Is Amazon being paid? Out of public funds? To which it contributes almost nothing in taxes from its vast profits?

Amazon has also shown complete disregard for its workers’ safety from Covid-19, resulting in walkouts at some of its US depots.

Workers in insecure, low-paid work will hesitate before giving the scheme the names of fellow workers, if they fear this could lead to them trying to survive on £95.85 a week statutory sick pay and possibly losing their jobs.

Chairing the scheme is Tory baroness Dido Harding, formerly chief executive of TalkTalk – where she was paid £2.8 million in 2016. She has previously said private healthcare “should not be demonised.”

When four million TalkTalk customers had their details hacked, she professed ignorance as to whether their accounts were encrypted. As chair of the tracing scheme, this hardly inspires confidence.

Many new tracers want to show solidarity, helping frontline workers who are risking their health. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said they have “stepped forward to help their country.”

But the gulf between two countries – the rich and the rest of us – gets wider by the day. Most of the 25,000 new tracers earn under £10 an hour – often less than jobs they have recently lost.

A successful contact tracing scheme is vital, but needs full public ownership and adequate funding. Sack Serco and all big business profiteers! Full pay for anyone asked to self-isolate!