A private company has been awarded a £10m contract to work on Scotland’s NHS Test and Protect contact tracing service.
Glasgow company Pursuit Digital will be paid up to £10.2m to provide “additional test and protect call centre capacity”, according to a contract notice posted online.
The notice on Public Contracts Scotland states that: ‘this contract award forms part of an interim service solution that safeguards the existing high standard of service at Scotland’s National Contact Tracing Centre while freeing NHS colleagues to return to vital front-line services.
‘This award will further enhance resilience, support maximum value for NHS Scotland and will enable the National Contact Tracing Centre to swiftly scale resource up or down to support Scotland’s Test and Protect programme.’
The contract was awarded directly to Pursuit without being advertised publicly ‘for reasons of extreme urgency brought about by events unforeseeable by the contracting authority’.
Nicola Sturgeon has previously said that a separate deal with a call centre firm to provide contact tracing staff only involved a “small number [of staff] on a short-term basis.”
When the First Minister announced the test and trace system in May she pledged “all the work of identifying and tracing contacts will be done within Scotland’s NHS.”
NHS National Services Scotland, which arranged the deal, said that up to 350 full and part-time staff from Pursuit would be deployed daily.
Ministers have previously pledged to recruit 2,000 contact tracers.
Asked whether these would be NHS employees, a spokesperson said: “Contracted colleagues from Pursuit remain employees of Pursuit and are being seconded to support the National Contact Tracing Centre.
“Contracts are held by NHS National Services Scotland and use NHS Scotland Terms and Conditions.
“All staff provided will be based in the UK and trained to the same high standards as all other NCTC colleagues.”
A spokesperson for Pursuit said: “As one of Scotland’s leading contact centre and digital technology providers, we have been engaged by NHS National Services Scotland to provide support to the National Contact Tracing Centre.
“Our contract is subject to performance targets and our team is prepared to meet the demands of any requirements specified by NHS National Services Scotland.”
The news prompted opposition parties to raise concerns that the Scottish government has not being open about how well they are meeting the scale of the test and trace challenge.
Scottish Conservative Shadow Health Secretary Donald Cameron: “Yet again the SNP are failing to be upfront with the public over how they are trying to stop the spread of Coronavirus.
“The problem isn’t using private firms to help with test and protect. It’s the failure of ministers to be honest and say they’ve failed with their pledge to recruit 2,000 contact tracers by June and have had to ask for more help.
“There’s far less shame in doing that than in failing to be open and transparent with information, a practice which is becoming all too commonplace under this administration.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton claimed the Scottish Government “squandered” the summer and has been playing “catch up” ever since.
He said: “This week’s figures show that just shy of 450 people who received a positive diagnosis weren’t interviewed within the first 24 hours of Test and Protect being told. Those delays put their contacts, and the public as a whole, at risk.
“Parliament recently voted to back Liberal Democrat calls to urgently build capacity in Test and Protect. People have made sacrifices for months and the government needs to keep its side of the bargain. That must involve being fully transparent about how many tracers we have and how many more are available.”
Companies House records show that Pursuit Digital is owned and controlled by 4 ICG Ltd, which is based at the same registered address.
Pursuit Marketing, based at the same address, offers a range of services and describes itself as “experts in the fields of telemarketing” and has been advertising online for temporary call handlers.
The Scottish Government and NHS Scotland National services have been asked to provide more information on the role of Pursuit.
Speaking last month, expert Linda Bauld said: “Any private call centre involvement needs to integrate with and supervised by colleagues with public health experience and qualifications.”
Professor Bauld added: “While we all recognise the importance of expanding capacity this shouldn’t be at the expense of expertise.”
It comes after it emerged last month that staff from travel agents Barrhead Travel and “outsourcing partner” Ascensos were working as contact tracers.
When details of the £1.3m agreement with Ascensos were revealed last month by healthandcare.scot, Nicola Sturgeon denied claims of outsourcing.
“This is an NHS system, it is NHS Test and Protect, the app is NHS,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“I know there is some scepticism about the validity and legitimacy of that described elsewhere but it is absolutely true here in Scotland.
“The fact that we recruit into that system from other places does not change that.”
The news comes at a time of increasing pressure on the contact tracing operation in Scotland.
Earlier this month it was reported that a “coding error” meant the number of people being contacted within 24 hours of testing positive for covid-19 was lower than expected.
Public Health Scotland revised up the overall number of positive cases waiting more than a day to be interviewed from 8,262 to 15,291.
Meanwhile, contact tracing cases taking more than 24 hours to complete rose from 17,225 to 23,828.
The NSS spokesperson added: “This partnership ensures resilience, achieves maximum value for our NHS and enables National Contact Tracing Centre to scale up or down swiftly to support Scotland’s Test and Protect programme.
“Our NHS continues to lead our national contact tracing programme, working in partnership with health boards, laboratories and testing centres and supported by the Scottish government.”
By Henry Anderson