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Revealed: Travel agent lands fresh Serco Test and Trace work – despite staff training concerns

Hays Travel has banned staff from speaking to the media about Serco’s heavily-criticised COVID-19 operations – but some have raised the alarm over lack of training and poor treatment

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
19 September 2020
Lauren Hurley/EMPICS Entertainment

Hays Travel, the holidays agency that took over Thomas Cook last year, has been given additional contract work on Britain’s faltering COVID-19 Test and Trace system – and staff have been banned from speaking about it publicly, openDemocracy can reveal today.

Customer service staff at Hays Travel, who have been working as subcontractors for Serco and French company Teleperformance, have had to sign confidentiality agreements that warn that if they speak to the media, the Track and Trace contracts could be terminated. But call handlers who spoke to openDemocracy expressed concern about inadequate training and poor treatment of staff.

The UK’s COVID-19 testing regime has been heavily criticised. Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace, admitted that as many as 750,000 requests for tests go unanswered every day. Earlier this week openDemocracy revealed that outsourcing giant Serco had been given a new £45m contract to provide COVID-19 test centres, despite widespread criticism of its performance to date.

Hays Travel has been working as a subcontractor on Serco’s Test and Trace regime after pitching for government work in March. The Sunderland-based company, owned and run by the married couple John and Irene Hays, recently announced that it was cutting almost 900 jobs following the introduction of quarantine for British holidaymakers travelling from Spain.

Earlier this month, Hays Travel sent an internal memo to staff saying “rather unexpectedly we have been given the opportunity to take some more people onto these contracts.” Staff in redundancy talks were offered the opportunity to work on test and trace until at least the middle of October.

But a number of Hays Travel customer service staff who spoke to openDemocracy on condition of anonymity complained that they had been given insufficient training and that they had been led to believe that the government contract work would save the business, and their jobs.

We were alone, working from home dealing with a pandemic none of us knew anything about

Former Hays Travel COVID-19 call handler

“We are not medically trained and I believe members of the public believed they were ringing medically trained people,” said one Hays Travel staff member who worked on COVID phone lines.

“The system we used constantly changed, wasn't always communicated correctly so there were times we were following the wrong procedures.

“If it wasn't for my fellow workers on chat groups I would not have had a clue how to help some people as there felt at times there was no one else to ask, we were alone, working from home dealing with a pandemic none of us knew anything about.”

Serco said that all COVID-19 call handlers are provided with an NHS England script, and if specialist or medical support is needed staff can call NHS Professionals. Serco said that staff are not allowed to commence work until they have successfully completed nine hours of training.

Experts, including David McCoy, professor of global public health at Queen Mary University of London, have criticised the outsourcing of the COVID response to private companies such as Serco and the limited training given to call centre staff, and have called for experienced local public health teams to have greater responsibility for overseeing the management of contact tracing.

McCoy said it was “ludicrous” to have a travel agency tracing contacts of COVID-19 sufferers, and said the minimal training provided was “hopelessly inadequate”.

“It makes no sense to have the work done by a travel agency in a call centre disconnected from the public health system. Private outsourcing is taking resources away from strengthening the public health front line, where capacity needs to be developed,” he said.

Serco has the largest private contract with the government for COVID-19 contact tracing. The logistics giant has reportedly subcontracted out the bulk of its contact tracing work, with the firm employing 29 other companies and 85 percent of staff (9,000 out of 10,500) not directly employed by the logistics company. Serco – and the Department of Health and Social Care – have been criticised for refusing to name its subcontractors on the track and trace programme.

“In a procurement process you really should know who the subcontractors are,” says Peter Smith, former president of the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply and author of ‘Bad Buying: How Organisations Waste Billions Through Failures, Frauds and F**k-ups’. "The big question is whether the Department does know but isn't telling, or Serco are genuinely refusing to say, which would be disgraceful".

Rachel Reeves, shadow cabinet secretary, said: "It's bad enough government is outsourcing so much during this pandemic to businesses like Serco instead of using our public sector, but many of these are then subcontracting further with no transparency.

"The government refuses to reveal the names of the businesses working on Test and Trace, and seem determined to prevent the public and MPs from judging their suitability and effectiveness.

“If these businesses are doing a great job then there's nothing to hide, but given that these are important and publicly funded contracts which are clearly not working well overall, we all deserve to know who is delivering them," Reeves said.

Redundancies

Hays Travel is currently in consultation with staff over 878 proposed redundancies. However, earlier this month Hays Travel purchased Welsh travel agency Tailor Made Travel, prompting staff who worked on the COVID-19 phone lines to question the basis for the job cuts.

“At the beginning [in April] as an employee we were encouraged to join these helplines to not only help the country but to help save the business, so for all the help we gave we are being thanked with being made redundant,” said one employee.

A number of Hays Travel’s foreign exchange staff have taken a collective grievance against the company over the redundancy consultation, according to documents seen by openDemocracy. “Their reason for making us redundant was the quarantine. But if they are losing customers, why have they taken over more stores?”

A spokeswoman for Hays Travel said that the company was “devastated” for those facing redundancy and that the firm was “focused on doing all we can to reduce the number by offering interviews for other roles”.

“We would like to assure you that we are acting in full compliance with employment law and treating everyone fairly throughout this process, recognising that it is a very uncertain and exceptionally stressful time for everyone concerned,” she said.

Hays Travel staff have had to sign confidentiality agreements pledging not to even acknowledge that the company is involved in Test and Trace and to remove any references to the COVID-19 work from their social media. “Any breach of the confidentiality agreement means that we could lose the contract and this would have a devastating impact,” staff were warned in an internal memo sent at the start of September.

A Hays Travel spokeswoman said: “It is standard practice to remind employees of our obligations under GDPR and to ask for media enquiries to be directed to our press office.”

Hays Travel has said that the idea to seek COVID contact-tracing work initially came from an employee, in response to the downturn in work at Hays as the virus spread and demand for holidays plummeted. Senior managers at the company approached a particular service centre that had been contracted to work on the COVID response but did not have enough skilled staff.

As well as contact tracing, Hays Travel customer service staff worked with the Foreign and Commonwealth providing travel advice and on 111 phone lines at the start of the pandemic.

Commenting on Hays Travel’s contact tracing work, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson previously said: “As the public would expect, we are doing everything we can to respond to this unprecedented global pandemic – this includes working with public and private sector partners where necessary.

“All contact tracers and call handlers receive appropriate training and follow detailed procedures and scripts.”

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