Probe into England’s contact tracers finds many make only ‘a handful of calls’ a month

Prime minister Boris Johnson
during a media briefing in Downing Street; Andrew Parsons/10 Downing S

Prime minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street; Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire - Credit: PA

England's 20,000-strong contact tracers are only making a 'handful of calls' a month despite coronavirus cases being on the rise, an investigation has found.

Tracers have told the Guardian that they are so starved of work since the system launched three months ago that they are occupying their time with barbecues and quizzes.

In June, Downing Street launched the NHS Test and Trace system to help curtail the spread of the virus by informing those who have in contact with a confirmed coronavirus case to self-isolate.

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The programme has repeatedly been labelled 'world-beating' by prime minister Boris Johnson, despite tracers missing the contact threshold of 75% of cases and 68% of contacts traced for it to be effective.

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Now, employees from Sitel and Serco, two private companies tasked with running the system, have revealed they are barely getting any calls.

One Sitel employee said they were being given quizzes by team leaders to keep them occupied in the day and that prizes were even being offered to those making the highest number of calls to keep up morale.

One worker told of an instance where £50 was awarded to the highest ranking caller in each team, who was then put in a draw at the end of the month to win a TV.

Tracers are being paid £10 an hour and have even been offered overtime rates.

One recruit claimed there were 'hundreds, if not thousands' of workers occupying their time 'sat in the garden having a barbecue so that they can stay logged in and clock up the hours.'

Another said they were being sent daily questions such as 'what's your favourite flower?' to 'pass the time and keep people active'.

He said: 'It's very juvenile, particularly when they treat us with extreme scepticism and negativity when calls aren't coming in.'

Analysis of Intelling's data, a call centre operator and trainer hired by outsourcing firm Serco, found that 471 agents made just 135 calls in two days – that is around 0.14 calls per agent per day.

This figure includes calls to incorrect numbers, voicemails, or multiple calls made to the same individual. One tracer working at the company said that one individual had been called by tracers 20 times.

Serco has said it had no record of this.

Another tracer said she had only made four calls in two-and-a-half months and claimed to have seen a spreadsheet showing around 15 calls a day were being made by a team of over 55 people. Some of her colleges, she claimed, had not made a single call.

'It's been very frustrating, and I'm grappling with my own morals because I'm wasting so much [public] money,' one worker said. 'They keep telling us next week it's going to get more busy, and at first you believe that, but over time reality sets in that I may never make a real call, and I'll be paid thousands of pounds by the government. That's deeply frustrating if you want to help.'

Data from a team working for Sitel has shown that it was averaging around 10 cases per person over nine weeks.

It is believed tracers have been incorrectly logging call due to a lack of training, leading to people being contacted multiple times by agents.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: 'In just eight weeks NHS test and trace has tested over 2.6 million people for coronavirus and contacted more than 218,000 people who have tested positive for the virus, or recently been in contact with someone who has tested positive, in order to break the chain of transmission.

'We have over 27,000 contact tracers in place to undertake this vital work and anyone with symptoms should book a test.'

When contacted for comment, Sitel merely sent a link to a webpage about the impact of the pandemic on its operations. Intelling did not respond to a request for comment.

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