Private Eye always has some interesting stories, and its coverage of the pandemic has been exemplary  – its medical writer has given some of the best advice and most balanced analysis I’ve seen anywhere.

But one article in the current edition shocked me. The magazine has been trying to find out more about the “track and trace contract”, awarded to Serco. Private Eye has had Serco in its sights since the tagging scandal some years ago, and coincidentally, four ex G4S managers are currently standing trial for fraud in connection with that same scandal.

So the magazine has been interested in how the firm is managing this new contract, which obviously is critical to how Covid is being handled in the UK. There have certainly been questions about how effective the service is proving, with reports that less than half the contacts are successfully traced, and tracing staff complaining of having nothing to do for days on end.

However, it appears that the vast majority of the actual people who are doing the work (such as it is) aren’t employed by Serco, but by sub-contractors. The firm is subcontracting operations to 29 other companies, and 85% (9,000 of a total of 10,500) of staff are apparently not employed directly by Serco. 

But when Private Eye asked which firms were acting in that role, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC – the department that “owns” this contract), refused to tell them. So under Freedom of Information rules, the magazine got hold of various documents. They showed that when the Labour Party’s Helen Hayes had asked the same question, the Department didn’t know the answer – and had to ask Serco!

Even more amazingly, it appears that Serco wouldn’t tell the Department the answer. The company’s response (that Private Eye saw) referred to a “panel of 29 subcontractors” and said that  those firms selected are either from a Crown Commercial Services framework or are “known providers”.

It is disturbing is that DHSC didn’t have this information at its fingertips when the question was first asked, and even more so if the supplier doesn’t actually have to disclose who they are using.  This is obviously an absolutely key contract, worth an awful lot of money and critical to the nation’s handling of the Covid crisis. How could you put this in place and not insist on knowing who your prime contractor was using as key sub-contractors? That sounds like a very weak contract and very poor contract management.

I know contracts have been let in haste, for understandable reasons in some cases at least. But there is no excuse for not having a grip on the key aspects of  how major suppliers are delivering the services. Understanding the supply chain must be part of that, and this failure is certainly a contender for Bad Buying – The Sequel!

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