21/09/2020 08:46 BST | Updated 21/09/2020 16:47 BST

Exclusive: Public Want Test And Trace Taken Off Private Firms

Poll shows 74% favour publicly-run system as concerns over contractors like Serco grow.

The vast majority of people think large private firms should be stripped of their test and trace contract and the job handed to town halls, says a new poll. 

The Survation survey, shared exclusively with HuffPost UK, shows 74% want local public health teams, rather than Serco and Sitel, to run NHS Test and Trace. 

Just 14% want the vital service to be run by a private company, the poll commissioned by We Own It and shared exclusively with HuffPost revealed. 

It comes as the government’s testing regime was in chaos, with figures last week showing three quarters of a million Covid test requests are going unanswered every day

Several reports also showed that in many cases, where someone could book a test, they were forced to travel long distances and wait in queues to get checks. 

The national track and trace system in England is largely managed by outsourcing giant Serco and call centre company Sitel

The companies were initially contracted to run the system up to August 23. However, their contracts were extended, potentially up to the value of £528m. 

JUSTIN TALLIS via Getty Images
Head of NHS Test and Trace Dido Harding walks through Parliament Square in central London

Dido Harding, chair of NHS Test and Trace, last week defended testing failures by saying there was an “unexpected” surge in demand, with many people who do not have symptoms said to be seeking checks. 

The Department of Health and Social Care, meanwhile, said local public health teams “already” play an “integral role” in NHS Test and Trace. 

Critics, however, say the system is too centralised and point to a steady decline in the rate of close contacts traced since the system was introduced. 

We Own It’s director Cat Hobbs said “the government’s much promised ‘world-beating’ system is anything but”. 

She added: “And the public understands this. This poll is a damning indictment on the government’s track and trace system. The overwhelming majority of the public want to see it run by the people who know what they’re doing - local public health protection teams and the NHS. 

“It’s absolutely staggering that the government is clinging doggedly to its failed, privatised system. It’s time for them to face reality. It’s time for them to kick the private companies out of the system and give local public health protection teams the resources to run it instead.”

The problem is not simply Serco - although their record is poor - but the instinct of this government to invest in large, centralised private corporates instead of local public services.Rachel Reeves, Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister

Government statistics published last week said 25% of people getting Covid tests between September 8 and 14 had to travel thirteen miles or more, with 5% having to travel 47 miles or more to get tested.  

Boris Johnson has pledged that the country will have capacity for 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. 

Health secretary Matt Hancock’s “Operation Moonshot”, which promises national on-demand testing, with results in minutes, by spring, was talked down by top scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who said the technology “had to be tested properly”.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said handing the work to local health teams has clear public support.

She told HuffPost UK: “The public know this Tory government’s approach to track and trace is failing and needs urgent change, especially when the stakes are so high. The problem is not simply Serco - although their record is poor - but the instinct of this government to invest in large, centralised private corporates instead of local public services.

“Tory ministers should swiftly learn from their mistakes in order to give us all the best chance of regaining some control over this virus, instead of throwing more money at corporations in blind hope.” 

A spokesperson for DHSC added it was expanding work with local health teams, saying: “This unprecedented national effort – drawing on the expertise and resources across the public and private sectors – has allowed us to build the largest diagnostic testing facility in British history, with a network of 400 testing sites across the country, allowing us to process over one million tests a week.”

NHS Test and Trace figures issued on Thursday revealed a dramatic fall in the number of tests completed within Boris Johnson’s 24-hour deadline, with just a third of in-person tests meeting that target – down by half in just a week.

But Harding continued to defend the system when she appeared before a Commons committee last week, saying: “I strongly refute that the system is failing.”