Firm awarded £10m Test and Trace contract put staff out on furlough

A COMPANY which was awarded a £10m contract to run NHS Scotland’s contact tracing service furloughed some of their staff immediately after taking on the work.

Staff working on Test and Protect for NHS Scotland were furloughed when Go-Centric took over the contract in April, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

The firm has claimed thousands from the UK Government for staff wages, beginning in the same month it was awarded the high-value contract from the NHS. Two companies linked to Go-Centric owner David Harper were previously stripped of public contracts in England and went bust, leaving millions in debt and many out of work.

Prior to Go-centric, Test and Protect was run by another firm, Pursuit Marketing, which lost the contract at the end of March.

NHS National Services Scotland then split the work between two other firms – Go-Centric, and Ascensos which started operating the service on April 1. The contract was for additional call centre capacity, with staff working on test and protect and other pandemic-related call centre work.

Staff who were working as contact tracers under Pursuit were transferred over under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations (TUPE).

Under these laws, staff are entitled to the same terms and conditions and rate of pay as they were on with the previous firm, however staff claim this did not happen.

Go-Centric insist it upheld TUPE legislation and worked “tirelessly” to accommodate transferred workers’ shift patterns.

Whistleblowers revealed that some workers who transferred across were immediately put on furlough, and claim others were given shifts at times they were unable to work, and which were not the same as those they had worked under Pursuit.

The furlough scheme, introduced by the UK Government at the start of the pandemic, was intended for use by companies struggling to survive due to the crisis.

It has been used by retail businesses, hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors which have been legally obliged to close due to the pandemic.

Other firms which have suffered a downturn in their income have also made use of the scheme.

According to the UK Government’s guidelines: “If your employer cannot maintain their workforce because their operations have been affected by coronavirus (COVID-19), they can put you on furlough and apply for a grant to cover a portion of your usual monthly wage costs.”

With Go-centric obtaining a £10m contract for one of the most important systems every health board in Scotland has been using to tackle the pandemic, on top of its existing work, employees said they were “astounded” to find out they were being furloughed.

The entire test and trace system has come under intense scrutiny in recent days as positive covid cases in Scotland have soared, and contact tracers have struggled to keep up. The proportion of cases closed within 24 hours has halved since April – going from 80% to 40% by June.

It was also discovered earlier this week that follow-up checks are no longer being carried out by phone for people coming back to the UK from amber list countries.

One employee said: “The furlough scheme is supposed to help companies struggling for income, not for the public to pay for them to save money when they have a huge amount of work to do and have just been given a £10m contract.”

According to data by HMRC, Go-centric began claiming furlough in March – the same month it was given the £10m contract, and claimed again for furloughed staff in April.

The firm has claimed £21,000 in total, but it is understood it is now considering repaying the money to HMRC.

According to multiple sources, some staff did not receive their April or May wages on time – with payments coming days after their due date.

The company is understood to have said there had been an internet banking error in May, and also blamed the previous company – Pursuit – for failing to provide payroll details in April for some of the staff which led to the delay.

Go-Centric is still advertising for call handlers now, but not paying the real Living Wage of £9.50 an hour.

Jobs advertised online for home-based ‘Contact Handler’ roles state the salary is £8.91 per hour, to support “the response to the current pandemic”.

Those working for Pursuit previously were paid between £10.50 and £15 per hour depending on their seniority within the team.

One staff member told The Herald on Sunday: “When we worked for Pursuit the company was flexible and accommodated people’s hours. They had a mental health line we could phone if we needed to, because sometimes you were dealing with people who were struggling with the fact someone they knew had coronavirus. We were having to phone pensioners who were in tears, or people who didn’t understand what was happening to them.”

Another employee added: “It has been really hard when all you hear is the government saying how proud they are of all those working to help fight the pandemic. This doesn’t feel like it at all.”

Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said the findings of our investigation raised serious questions about the contracts.

She said: “These reports raise serious questions about the treatment of staff that must be investigated.

“Ministers framed these contracts and must urgently answer if the power of public procurement is being used to support dignity in work.

“But perhaps the most damning revelation is that while cases are rising and test and protect is more important than ever, the Scottish Government is suspending its functions because it is struggling to cope.

“These staff could be put to work fighting the pandemic but are instead facing financial insecurity.

“And responsibility for that ultimately lies with ministers.”

NHS National Services Scotland (NSS), which awarded the contract, told the Herald on Sunday there were “no issues” since the contract transferred.

When asked what checks were carried out on go-centric before it was awarded the contract, NSS Head of Procurement Kris Lindsay said: “Go-Centric was appointed to support this NHS-led service following a robust and transparent open tender process. This process fully met our rigorous procurement standards and all regulations.”

Asked if NSS was aware that staff had been furloughed after the transfer, Mr Lindsay said: “NSS has taken all appropriate actions within our remit to support the transfer of service from our previous partner to Go-Centric.”

He insisted NSS “rigorously monitor and review supplier performance against agreed contractual standards” but added that the “operational decisions” taken by firms “within that agreed contractual framework are the responsibility of the supplier.”

Asked if NSS thought it was appropriate for a private firm to claim furlough money from the public purse when it was paid £10m for the test and trace service, Mr Lindsay said it was “not appropriate” to offer an opinion.

He added: “There have been no issues following the transition to our new supply partner.”

When the claims were put to Go-Centric, a spokeswoman said: “It is an honour to deliver vital services for the NHS and our record of excellent service was recognised when we won the contract to deliver additional support for NHS Scotland following a full tendering process.

“Nearly 300 staff transferred to us from Pursuit Marketing, and as a professional contact centre we worked tirelessly to accommodate preferred shift patterns while fully honouring all TUPE obligations.

“A very small number of workers went on furlough for less than four weeks so that we could safeguard their jobs and ensure we could retain them long-term by reshaping our system to provide more hours.

“Throughout the pandemic we have created hundreds of new job opportunities in Scotland and we’re incredibly proud of every single employee who is contributing to our national recovery.”

Business difficulties The firm’s owner, David Harper, has been involved in as many as 33 companies including Go-Centric, according to Companies House.

Two previous firms he was involved in went bust, leaving a trail of job losses and millions in debt despite being paid by the UK Government to deliver training and apprenticeships.

Talent Training and AMS Nationwide received millions in apprenticeship funding from the government before they went into liquidation in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Undercover reporters for a trade publication discovered that Talent Training was offering incentives to companies in exchange for using its services to train apprentices, which was banned by the Government. The firm denied ever making any payments, with Mr Harper saying he was shocked by the revelations, and it was a rogue employee who made the offer, rather than company policy.

It was given cash by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (EFSA), which is part of the UK Government, to be used solely for training apprentices, but instead it was found to be offering firms as much as 20 per cent of the government cash as a kickback if they chose to use them.

After an investigation the EFSA stopped working with Talent Training and several months later the company went bust, leaving around 100 people jobless and £1.4m debt.

A new company was then set up called AMS Nationwide. Mr Harper was an ‘external management consultant’ for the firm, which took over some of Talent Training’s contracts, but it went into liquidation after EFSA stopped working with it as well. It went bust in 2018

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992