First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the Test and Protect system is not being outsourced, despite a contract being awarded to a private company to provide contact tracing staff.
Motherwell-based call centre firm Ascensos was awarded a £1.3 million contract directly from National Services Scotland for providing additional contact tracers on September 23, according to the Public Contracts Scotland website.
In response to claims that deal means the Scottish Government is outsourcing the Test and Protect system, the First Minister said the firm is merely providing extra staff.
The contract award notice said the agreement covers the “immediate and rapid deployment of additional track and trace contact tracers”.
Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon said: “Test and Protect in Scotland is an NHS service.
“We have not and we will not outsource any parts of our contact tracing system and no parts of the contact tracing system is run by the private sector, and I want to make that perfectly clear.
“What National Services Scotland has done is recruit a small number of staff on a short-term basis from private companies as we migrate from a system that in its early days was staffed by people within the NHS who could be called on, as we migrate from that to a permanent workforce.
“This small number of staff recruited from the private sector work within the NHS system, they work under direction of the NHS, they are trained in Test and Protect, they work as part of that integrated NHS system – they are not working to a private company that has been given the responsibility of running contact tracing.
“That’s not semantics, that’s a very, very different thing.”
The NHS had originally moved staff from other departments into contact tracing work, however a more permanent solution was needed and recruitment began for 2,000 full-time staff to work solely on Test and Protect.
The contract award notice said the staff would be used to “meet the additional demands of the Scottish health and social care sector during the current Covid-19 pandemic”.
The First Minister went on to say 1,800 contact tracers are available to Test and Protect and that figure is expected to rise by 245 before the end of the month.
She said contact tracers have been recruited from travel agency Barrhead Travel, after the company offered staff who would otherwise be facing redundancy due to the pandemic.
She described the move as “a good thing”, but it is not clear how many members of the firm’s staff have been recruited.
She added: “When we are recruiting people into an NHS system, we will go to different sources to get the people that we need to do the jobs.”
But opposition politicians have hit out at the Scottish Government over the contract, with Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie saying the move is a sign ministers are “struggling” to provide a contact tracing service.
He said: “This contract will not be enough if it is just filling the gaps left by staff returning to their original jobs.
“The fact that the SNP Government are outsourcing this work is a sign that they are struggling to deliver an effective tracing system, especially when they have previously criticised the use of such outsourcing by the Conservative Government.”
Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said: “For weeks, Scottish Labour has been calling on the Government to recruit more contact tracers but they have not done enough to build up capacity and expand routine testing to key workers.”
Ms Lennon accused the Scottish Government of “complacency and dithering” over the performance of Test and Protect.
She added: “SNP ministers may be turning to outsourcing, but the buck stops with them to expand Test and Protect and make it work efficiently and effectively across Scotland.”
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