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Outsourcing firm Serco wins £212m UK Test and Trace deal

Nice work if you can get it – it bagged £322m deal for Test and Trace last year

Updated Serco has won a £212m ($278m) contract for disease testing and contract tracing from the UK Health Security Agency, the organisations set up to replace the controversial NHS Test & Trace and doomed Public Health England.

In a contract initially set to last two years, the tech and public sector outsourcing provider will be expected to support services in the country including positive case tracing, contact tracing, isolation follow-up, test enquiries, and test bookings.

T&T in 2022 and beyond

The move comes one month after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government officially ended what it termed "routine" contact tracing, "including venue check-ins on the NHS COVID-19 app."

The government said last month that "from April" it will "update guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with COVID-19 should take to be careful and considerate of others, similar to advice on other infectious diseases. This will align with testing changes."

Over in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it no longer recommends universal case investigation and contact tracing. As of 28 February, it encourages health departments to focus those practices on "high-risk settings" instead.

The situation on the ground in the intervening weeks, however, has changed and continues to do so.

Serco's work during initial UK outbreak

The outsourcing provider has already worked on the test and trace system during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was awarded a £322m ($423m) contract to continue its work on the Test and Trace system in England and Northern Ireland in 2021, having first won a £45m ($59m) deal in June 2020.

The £37bn ($48bn) Test and Trace service set up in the UK during the height of the pandemic received damning criticism from national public spending watchdog the National Audit Office.

In October last year, Parliament's Public Accounts Committee also released a report criticising government performance on Test and Trace, saying it failed to meet its objectives of mitigating the pandemic.

In December 2020, the NAO said that the system had not yet achieved all its objectives, "with too few test results delivered within 24 hours, and too few contacts of infected people being reached and told to self-isolate."

Govt criticised for contracting private sector firms

Dido Harding, the former head of Test and Trace was forced to defend the services use of private sector providers. Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee in February last year, she said outsourcing was necessary because the work was "quite technical [in addressing] operational processes and systems design as we build the services".

Harding added that she hoped roles would be transferred to the civil service.

Serco is no stranger to criticism in terms of services delivered to the UK public sector.

In 2019, it paid £22.9m to the UK's Serious Fraud Office in fines and costs related to its electronic tagging scandal. Under the "deferred prosecution agreement", the firm's UK subsidiary – Serco Geografix Ltd (SGL) – has taken responsibility for three offences of fraud and two of false accounting related to the contract with the Ministry of Justice between 2010 and 2013.

Serco was alleged to have charged the Ministry of Justice for monitoring offenders in Britain who were already in jail, dead or had left the country.

Rupert Soames, the grandson of wartime-era British prime minister Winston Churchill and Serco's group chief exec, said the company was "mortified, embarrassed and angry" that it had understated the level of profitability of its "Electronic Monitoring" contract in its reports to the Ministry of Justice six to nine years ago. ®

Updated to add on 22 March:

A UKHSA spokesperson has been in touch to say: "It is vital we have the right services in place to communicate effectively with the public and respond to any public health threats, including COVID-19.

"The advertised cost of the contract is the maximum that can be spent, the actual cost is likely to be much less.

"The contracts have been awarded following a fair and open procurement process, in line with public sector procurement guidelines and with the aim of achieving value for the taxpayer."

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