Outsourcing giants Serco and Sitel were handed huge test-and-trace contracts – without any threat of penalties should they fail to meet targets.
In a written response to former Brexit secretary David Davis, Helen Whately – the health minister – revealed that “contractual penalties” were “not included in test-and-trace contracts with Serco”.
Whately justified the omission by claiming that “contractual penalties are often unenforceable under English law”.
The astonishing revelation comes as Boris Johnson’s flailing test-and-trace system came under fresh criticism after it reported its worst ever figures for tracking down those with “close contacts” of people who had tested positive for Covid-19.
Test and Trace failing
Just 62.6 per cent of cases in England were reached and told to self-isolate – the worst since NHS Test and Trace, which has been largely outsourced to companies like Serco, was launched in May.
It means that nearly one third of all people who have been in contact with someone testing positive have not been reached, and have thus not been instructed to quarantine for 14 days.
SAGE experts have previously advised that the test-and-trace system can only function effectively if a minimum of 80 per cent of “close contacts” are tracked down and told to self-isolate.
NHS Test and Trace is fronted by Tory peer Dido Harding, and had been roundly attacked for its use of firms like Deloitte and Serco – which it has now emerged have largely been operating without accountability.
In September, Davis asked the Department of Health and Social Care “what performance targets are in place for commercial providers of track and trace functions; what penalties can be imposed for failure to meet those targets; and what penalties have already been imposed for failure to meet those targets.”
Earlier this week – over a month later – Whately responded: “Contractual penalties are often unenforceable under English law so they were not included in test and trace contracts with Serco or Sitel.
“Sitel and Serco are approved suppliers on the Crown Commercial Service contact centre framework and the contracts have standard performance and quality assurance processes in place.
“Some information on Key Performance Indicators and service levels has been redacted from these published contracts as it is considered to be commercially sensitive.
“The contracts have break clauses in them, meaning if the company does not meet required service levels we may cancel the contract and reclaim our money.”