As the government prepares to announce its strategy to ease the lockdown measures imposed to enforce social distancing, there are worrying signs that it is placing undue reliance on a poorly designed smartphone app and on private contractors with extremely poor track-records. It also appears to be failing to involve local government expertise in efforts to avoid future waves of Covid-19.
Cornwall Councillor Colin Martin has reported that Cornwall Council has twice offered – at the beginning of March and in the middle of April – to help with contact tracing of people exposed to the virus, and was twice told by government to “mind its own business”. During this time the number of confirmed cases in Cornwall rose from single figures to several hundred, and the government appeared to give up all efforts to track and trace potentially infected people at local level.
Tom Scott, speaking for Cornwall Green Party, said: “Local government public health teams have been systematically underfunded over the last decade, but they exist precisely to help deal with major public health hazards at local level, including outbreaks of infectious disease. As well as a wealth of local knowledge, they have considerable expertise in contact tracing. It’s inexplicable that national government would not want to draw on this to help prevent the further spread of the virus in Cornwall and elsewhere.
“Instead, it appears to be putting its faith in private contractors with highly questionable records and in a smartphone app that has been criticised by many leading cybersecurity and legal experts for the way in which it fails to properly safeguard sensitive personal data.”
Last week, it was reported that Serco is among the private contractors chosen to run call centres in connection with the “track and trace” app, despite the company’s long record of mismanagement of government contracts, including those for refugee detention centres and electronic tagging (in 2019 Serco was fined £19.2m in for offences related to the latter, including fraud and false accounting).
“People in Cornwall may remember the fiasco that ensued when Serco was contracted to run out-of-hours GP services here,” said Tom Scott. “It was a disaster – the contract was suspended early and a subsequent report by the Public Accounts Committee found that Serco had failed to meet national standards, falsified data and allowed a bullying culture. It beggars belief that such a company is being entrusted with the handling of sensitive personal data during this crisis.”
There are already reports of shambolic arrangements for testing of NHS staff, care-home workers and other key workers in Cornwall, which has also been subcontracted to private operators. Key workers who have turned up at “test centres” in Truro and Bodmin have found these unstaffed and had to return home untested.
On 5 May, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked Health Secretary Matt Hancock to confirm that directors of public health and environmental health officers won’t just be consulted but will actually be leading the delivery of community tracking and tracing efforts. She expressed the hope that “government will not just be repeating the mistakes it has made with drive-through testing centres and PPE supply by outsourcing those critical tasks to private companies like Serco, Sodexo and Deloitte who have proved that they are simply not up to the job”.
Mr Hancock pointedly refused to give any such assurance.
“There is a very real risk of further outbreaks of the virus in Cornwall when the lockdown is ended,” said Tom Scott. “Countries that have effectively managed to keep such outbreaks under control, such as Germany and South Korea, have done this mainly by using dedicated teams of local contact tracers. It is extremely concerning that the UK government seems to be taking a very different approach, and to be ignoring the expertise at local level that could help it succeed.”
- Colin Martin, Lib Dem Cornwall Councillor for Lostwithiel, described how Cornwall Council’s offers to help with contact tracing had twice been rebuffed by central government in a Facebook video on 1 May: https://www.facebook.com/1011556768950016/videos/247158086642368/
- BBC News 03/07/19: Serco fined £19m over tagging scandal https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-48853870
- BBC News 13/12/13: Serco Cornwall out-of-hours GP contract to end early https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cornwall-25362545
- Business Insider 29/04/20: 170 cybersecurity experts warn that British government's contact tracing app could be used to surveil people even after coronavirus has gone https://www.businessinsider.com/cybersecurity-experts-uk-government-contact-tracing-surveillance-2020-4?r=US&IR=T
- Cornwall Live 30/04/20: Frontline staff sent for Covid-19 tests in Truro at test centre that was not there https://www.cornwalllive.com/news/cornwall-news/frontline-staff-sent-covid-19-4092860