Employees of the government’s much-maligned Test and Trace programme say that there was a ‘phenomenal amount of money wasted’ on scheme in the lead up to the end of Covid-19 restrictions.
Test and Trace officially ended on Thursday, February 24 – but sources say they were locked out of NHS software and completing “pointless” general knowledge quizzes after that – while still being paid £9.50 per hour. At least £11,400 a day is believed to have been wasted on employing around 150 agents who could not work in the days following the end of Test and Trace, reports the MEN.
“The only thing that was stopping me from leaving the house was having to log in and out (of the software) every 60 minutes to show I was still active,” said Anna*, a Salford resident who worked as a telephone operator employed by ANT Marketing, one of the companies contracted to carry out Test and Trace work.
Anna’s role involved calling people who had tested positive for Covid and collecting data for contract tracing, as well as general demographic statistics. When she started with ANT Marketing, she would complete around 24 calls a day. But by the end she, along with at least 150 others, were being paid to take “pointless” general knowledge quizzes and sit in their homes doing nothing.
The quizzes given to employees featured questions such as ‘Name the spice girls nicknames’ and ‘What is the guy’s name who plays Mick in Eastenders’. On Pancake Day, ANT marketing employees were also encouraged by managers to send in ‘campaign-related’ pancake recipes and pictures.
Screenshots seen by the Manchester Evening News show employees being threatened with ‘record of discussion’ (ROD) notices by managers when they asked about the future of their employment or for guidance over the winding down of the system. One message from a manager reads: “Any comments about the campaign or the changes on Thursday (24 February) will be deemed disruptive and deleted going forward.”
“It was like a police state,” said Rosie*,24, another telephone operator. “If you posted something [in the team chat] they were not happy about, they just deleted the comment. People have been quite abusive. The way they speak to us is really upsetting.”
Both women also said they were not given any advice on how to handle calls to those who had tested positive but would not legally need to isolate after guidance changed on February 24. They said they faced increased aggression and hostility from those they were calling during the final weeks of Test and Trace – but were never given any instructions on how to deal with this.
A UKHSA spokesperson said following the end of routine contact tracing on 24 February, most call handlers were informed when their contracts will end: “We have kept staff updated throughout this process and wish them all the best for the future.”
However, despite weeks of prior warning regarding the end of Test and Trace, Anna’s contract was still renewed to March 13 just the day before all Covid restrictions were due to end.
It was later cut back to 8 March – still meaning she was paid for a week of being employed to do nothing. ANT Marketing insisted that no formal complaints from Test and Trace employees had been recorded.
A spokesperson said: “When the end of Test and Trace was announced, ANT were providing just over 100 people on this service. Two weeks’ notice was served on our supply contract and shortly after, in compliance with our employment contracts, ANT communicated with its staff regarding this decision.”
Speaking to the Manchester Evening News, sources who had worked in different parts of Test and Trace raised similar concerns about poor management and wasted money. Harriet worked swabbing people in an assisted lane at a physical Covid testing centre. She started working there in April 2020, and said it was immediately evident that none of her supervisors had experience in running temporary sites.
“In the early days it felt like we were part of the effort. It felt like we were making a difference,” she told the MEN. “But as time progressed the whole attitude became about saving money.”
Harriet said working over winter 2020 was “grim” – staff on her site were not issued winter uniforms until the week before Xmas, despite working outside in freezing temperatures. A lack of organisation and effective management led to “phenomenal” amounts of wasted money, she said.
“For example, we hired traffic cones by the day. We had hundreds of them around the site, but we were still paying something like nine pence per cone when we could’ve saved money by hiring them out longer-term.”
Harriet stopped working for Test and Trace in October 2021, but commented on the inefficiency of the sites. “A phenomenal amount of money was wasted,” she said. “You could see it everywhere. I would include myself in that as well, at points.”
All Test and Trace workers we spoke to also said they were often seen as the face of the NHS – despite not being medically trained, or often even employed by them.
“People assumed that we were nurses or at the very least healthcare workers,” Harriet said. “I would never tell anyone that I was medically trained, but I also would try not to tell them that I wasn’t. It could be hard to get people to take you seriously otherwise.” All of ANT Marketing’s Test and Trace telephone operators’ contracts have now finished, the MEN understands.
A UKHSA spokesperson said: “NHS Test and Trace has played an absolutely critical role in managing COVID-19, reaching tens of millions of people, and we would like to thank everyone that has contributed to this unprecedented service.”
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