NHS Contact Tracers Reveal the Whole Process to Be a Shambles While They're Paid to Do Nothing

By Shabana Arif on at

If you've ever contemplated whether the government is just taking a big ol' dump and wiping its sodden, pasty arse with tax payer money on the reg, the latest NHS contact tracing app debacle should answer that question and then some.

The government's contact tracing app is beyond a joke at this point, and it truly boggles my mind that it's still forging ahead, ignoring expert advice and legitimate concerns, while every other day more problems are exposed. If this sort of thing happened in a 'normal' workplace and a project was going into the shitter, who in their right mind would keep throwing money at it? But that's exactly what's happening with the NHSX's app, and the latest leaks come from the contact tracers themselves, who have revealed that they're being paid to do nothing, as training goes awry and technical difficulties result in staff not being able to log into the system for days.

Contact tracers' jobs involve reaching out to people who have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 and passing on widely-available advice that seems like it could just as easily be disseminated via push notifications. Let's not forget that the app is self-reporting and doesn't provide any means of verification that the user who reports symptoms is actually infected, leading to concerns that it could be misused by dumb dumbs playing silly buggers, or a person who errs on being a hypochondriac. Staff are told to work from a two-page script, typical of a call centre, and are advised to escalate "more challenging cases" to senior handlers; that includes people who 'refuse to cooperate', so that's nice. Working on behalf of Public Health England (PHE), recruits were told that they're "the first point of contact with the contacts of confirmed positive cases of Covid-19."

One insider revealed that he applied for the position - advertised as a “Work at Home – Customer Service Adviser” at £10 per hour - and went on to participate in an online training session run by Sitel that saw around 100 recruits assigned to a single trainer.

"We had a chat [box] where we could ask him questions, but the first hour and a half of the training was just people writing, ‘I can’t hear anything’.

"The trainer said [the problems] were normal and he’d been taking the sessions since last Wednesday. He was just being slammed with questions all the way through. He was saying, ‘guys, I can’t answer all your questions. There are too many of you’. He said at one point, ‘does anybody know what this job is about?’ No one really had any idea.”

Just last week, The Guardian reported that less than 10 per cent of contact tracers had been recruited, meaning only 1,500 of the 18,000 staff target has been met. This doesn't come as a huge surprise given that the roll-out has been delayed, but even with its expected June launch, that's a lot of people to hire and get up to speed in a short space of time. Clearly, fulfilling just 10 per cent of positions seems to have overloaded training staff. Things get even more dire, as the same source continued:

"After the full day of training, people were still asking the most basic things. Someone also asked what they should do if they spoke to someone whose relative had died of the virus and he said we should look on YouTube where there are lots of videos about empathy and sympathy when talking to someone."

When he logged in to start his first shift at 9am, he received a message asking him to "sit tight" and await further instructions, which never came. He did receive an email assuring him he'd be paid regardless for doing nothing all day long, and that another training session was going to happen. Another source describes not being able to log into the system for three days after she got the job, saying:

"Matt Hancock was saying last night that it was all ready to go. It's not."

Not our good mate Matt! Surely not. The Guardian also reports that HR Go, one of the companies hired to handle recruitment, sending out an email that read:

"Unfortunately earlier today the roles were put on hold. This is due to a delay in the launch of the ‘Track and Trace’ app itself while the government considers an alternative app.”

That's an interesting titbit, given that we heard rumours that NHSX could be working on a replacement app that may use Apple-Google's API rather than the mangled mess it's currently frittering away tax-payer money on. But not to worry - NHSX is "funded through existing budgets" from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), and it's much more important to carry on working on a piece-of-shit app than looking at increasing healthcare workers' salaries - right Matt? He gets it. Of course, the DHSC swooped in to say that the email was “wrong and could cause confusion” (via The Guardian).

A DHSC spokesperson - who also spoke on behalf of Sitel - addressed the reports from recruits, saying interviews were being conducted through online assessments and telephone screening, and applicants are required to provide Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and Right to Work information. This conflicts with one of the insider's accounts, who said he applied for the 'customer service adviser' role, received an email ensuring he had the required software, then got a call explaining the job (obviously not very well), and was asked when he could start. Super thorough. The DHSC spokesperson added that the advice on going to YouTube to find out how to deal with the bereaved isn't the correct process and would be looked into.

"Staff are trained on data security, customer service, safeguarding vulnerable children and adults, operating procedures, and when to escalate issues among other matters.

"Only applicants that have passed the training modules and technical tests are allowed to move onto the next stage and start work.”

Well, someone's telling porkies. To give you a refresher of the struggles so far, the NHS app has been criticised for potentially being in breach of human rights and data protection laws, and has failed basic tests around security and safety. Its Isle of Wight trial has been riddled with problems, while leaked internal documents from NHSX reveal that further privacy violations are on the cards and that the government has every intention to keep the data post-pandemic which is being opposed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) in the form of a private member's bill. So this is just the cherry on the cake, and that cake is a Black Forest gateau. It's all fucking cherries. [The Guardian]