SERCO Red Pilled - Double L MC on their Secret Owners & False Positive Test Incentives
Serco lands another £45m for ‘failing’ COVID Test and Trace scheme
Revealed: Controversial firm has won previously unreported coronavirus testing contract – while critics label its £108m call centre deal ‘astonishing’ and ‘unethical’.
Caroline Molloy - 17 September 2020
The outsourcing giant Serco has won an additional £45m to provide COVID test centres, openDemocracy can reveal today. The multi-million pound deal has not been made public, but provides a major additional role for the controversial firm in the UK’s troubled Test and Trace scheme, which has come under fire as infection rates rise across the UK.
It has also emerged that another big Serco contract for COVID contact tracing, worth up to £432m, has a clause which allows Serco to effectively rewrite key terms on service provision – terms which have been redacted. The move has been criticised by procurement experts as “unethical” and “bad practice”, with the government’s overall approach to the contract labelled “astonishing”.
David Davis MP, the former Brexit Secretary, told openDemocracy, “Whilst it’s entirely understandable that the Department of Health have accelerated or maybe even short circuited some of the procurement processes in the circumstances, there is no excuse for secrecy either over the number and size of the contracts and most particularly over the level of service the contracts deliver.”
“These are matters of extraordinary public interest and there is no conceivable reason for not releasing it.”
Secrecy and close ties to senior Tories
Until now, the scale of Serco’s involvement in COVID test site provision has not been made public. The Guardian reported back in April that Serco, along with Sodexo, had some involvement in test site provision, and Serco’s website states that since the start of the crisis “our 2,000-strong team has subsequently delivered tests across 25 fixed and 64 mobile sites.”
A Serco spokesman has now confirmed to openDemocracy that they operate 30% of COVID test sites. openDemocracy understands that the rest are operated by Sodexo and G4S, with support from Mitie, Boots and the army. Serco also stressed that other firms provide other aspects of the testing programme including test kits, laboratories, and booking systems. Deloitte – which has already faced criticism for its involvement in the scheme – is responsible for the overall management of the testing programme, but not the on-the-ground delivery.
Serco also holds two further COVID-related contracts totalling nearly £100million: a Department of Work and Pensions helpline for people shielding, and assistance with a business helpline.
The scale of Serco’s involvement in the COVID response has attracted controversy because of the firm’s close ties to senior Conservatives. Health minister Edward Argar was formerly head of public affairs at Serco, while the company’s chief executive Rupert Soames is the brother of former Tory MP and party grandee Nicholas Soames.
As with much of the government’s coronavirus response, Serco’s test site contract does not appear to have been advertised or open to public competition. Nor has the government published it, despite government guidance that this should be done within 20 days of the contract being awarded.
The Department for Health has told openDemocracy that “Serco’s involvement in test site provision is covered by a separate contract” – meaning that it is separate from the contact tracing scheme – and added: “The reported Serco contract with the value of £45m is for provision of test sites."
Professor Allyson Pollock, member of Independent SAGE, said it was “beyond belief” and “extraordinary” that despite “clear evidence of the extraordinary failures of the privatised test and trace system”, the government wasn’t “terminating these contracts and reinvesting it into public health services and labs which have been shown to be highly effective.”
Serco’s separate £108m COVID contact tracing contract – the value of which could rise to £432m if it continues through to next year – allows Serco to “refine” its own service level agreements, oversee its own monitoring, and also rules out automatic penalties for underperformance.
A former senior government civil servant and procurement expert told openDemocracy that the terms of this deal seem to “completely unwind the kind of rigour they wanted to introduce a few years ago, which was triggered by Serco’s own behaviour [in the wake of a separate scandal over a prisoner electronic tagging scheme].”
“Basically the statement they’ve made, is ‘we think we’re buying this, but we don’t really know, so maybe let’s have a chat about it.’”.
“Particularly with Serco the idea that you would try to contract with them in good faith is astonishing”