Covid-19 contact tracing teams run by private firms are slashed
Non-NHS call handlers were reduced from 18,000 to 12,000 in August, and to 10,000 at the end of September.
It follows reports that some call handlers employed by private firms as part of a Government contract did not have enough work to do.
It is also part of a shift to more localised contact tracing as outlined by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick on Sunday.
Private firms Serco and Sitel are now providing 5,000 call handlers each to make up the 10,000 figure.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said: “NHS Test and Trace is providing tests at an unprecedented scale – over 240,000 a day on average last week – and more than half a million people have been contacted to self-isolate, helping cut transmission.
“As contact tracing becomes more locally targeted, we have adjusted the number of non-NHS call handlers as well as ring-fencing specific teams to work closely with local authorities and public health teams to make sure we reach people in their communities and prevent the spread of Covid-19.”
It is understood that local contact tracing teams are to be given more cash to boost services.
A spokesman for Serco said it was proud of the service it provides.
He added: “At all times we have delivered the numbers of call handlers required by DHSC and shown the flexibility to adjust the size of our team as the system develops and matures.
“Today, we have sufficient capacity to meet the current demands from the Government and also a proven capability to increase numbers again should that be required.”
On Sunday, Mr Jenrick said councils are “bound to be better” at contact tracing than centralised Government staff.
Asked whether the Government will hand Test and Trace over to local authorities, Mr Jenrick told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We’re going to work very closely with local authorities.
“So in addition to the national infrastructure, which is developing and increasing with every passing week, we’re also going to be making use of local councils to do contact tracing in particular, because there is clear evidence that local councils are good at that – as you’d expect.”
Pushed on whether councils would do a better job, Mr Jenrick said: “Yes, but I don’t think we should be surprised by that.
“People who know their own community, particularly harder-to-reach communities, are bound to be better than Whitehall or national contact tracers. So we’re going to be supporting them to do that.”
Labour’s Angela Eagle, whose Wallasey constituency faces the likelihood of increased restrictions, asked: “Why did it take this Government £12 billion and seven wasted months to realise the blindingly obvious?”
Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “Councils’ unique expertise and understanding of their communities means they have been able to rapidly reach those who have tested positive and their contacts, to help contain the spread.
“Local contact tracing services exist to support NHS Test and Trace, with latest figures showing they reached 97.1% of close contacts who were asked to self-isolate.
“If we are to build upon these successful local efforts, this should be backed up with the necessary funding, up-to-date data and extra people on the ground needed to track and trace everybody affected.”