Contractor wins £322m deal for Coronavirus testing centres
Contractor Serco, which operates Covid test centres in Northern Ireland and England, has been awarded a £322m contract to continue doing so.
The UK’s much-criticised Covid test-and-trace programme, which Boris Johnson pledged would be world-beating when he launched it with £22bn in May 2020, has repeatedly missed targets, with the Labour Party criticising the government’s use of private firms.
Serco’s £322m new contract covers site operations, cleaning and security at around 20% of test sites in NI and England, down from the 25% in its previous deal.
Parliament’s spending watchdog said on Friday that test and trace - Serco doesnt do tracing in NI - had improved but was still missing targets, and the results of millions of tests for asymptomatic cases hadn’t been reported.
Earlier this month Serco raised its 2021 profit forecast in part thanks to its work on COVID-19 services. It did not change its forecast on Monday following the contract win.
The News Letter asked the Department of Health if the size of the contract indicated that, while hoping for the best with regards to the relaxation of restrictions, it was also preparing for the possibility of major surges in infection rates. Stormont referred the query to the Whitehall Department of Health.
It responded: “The UK is now established as a testing powerhouse, with over 203 million tests conducted to date. Around one in three people show no symptoms with COVID-19, so regular testing is vital in helping identify cases and stopping outbreaks.
“We have been clear from the outset that NHS Test and Trace must achieve value for taxpayers and exercise good commercial judgement. This contract extension will deliver on that promise, ensuring we have the right people doing the right jobs to help us to fulfil our commitment of providing regular testing.”
QUB Professor of virology Bert Rima said it seems as though testing is still going to be needed going forward.
“The test and trace system has seriously underperformed,” he said. “However, it seems clear that we will need testing for a while longer and it is likely that no one else could perform this more economically than Serco. Cleaning the centres may be another matter.”
Serco CEO Rupert Soames said he was proud of its part in the UK’s “highly successful” Covid-19 testing. “From a standing start in March 2020, NHS Test & Trace has grown a network of regional, local and mobile sites which have delivered over 18.5 million individual tests, an average of 51,000 tests a day.” Today there were 278 more confirmed Covid cases in NI but no more deaths in the previous 24 hours; 19 patients were in hospital with two in intensive care.
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