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Call centre. Photo: Alan Clark / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article

The outbreak at an NHS England Covid contact tracing call centre in Scotland exposes why workplaces aren’t actually safe, argues Sophie Johnson

As Johnson and Sturgeon begin to open up workplaces, if our health care workers employed to protect the public aren’t provided adequate measures to protect themselves; how can we trust the rest of us are safe? The government’s guidelines claiming offices and other workplaces can be “covid-secure” are dubious at best, and the outbreak near Motherwell, Scotland is a prime example of this.

The press coverage has been extremely scattered concerning the recent outbreak, in a Covid tracing centre no less, yet it seems unclear who is to blame for this flare up? The Westminster government, the Scottish government or this mysterious company Sitel?

Despite NHS outsourcing being generally shrouded by smoke and mirrors and intentional ambiguity, the finger of blame can certainly be pointed at the reigning Conservative establishment’s ongoing negligence and privatisation at the expense of the population’s health.

As of Tuesday 19 July, positive cases were linked to the site in Lanarkshire, Scotland; a contact tracing call centre for NHS England which operates slightly differently from NHS Scotland’s ‘Test and Protect’ system. This has led to the bewildering outcome of contact tracers working for NHS Scotland contact tracing...NHS England’s contract tracers based in Scotland. 

This is unfortunately not the first time the US company Sitel has been under fire for lack of workplace safety in the UK, nor indeed other outsourced companies such as Serco during the pandemic. A previous complaint in March concerning a Sitel NHS 111 call centre in Plymouth was made by Labour MP Luke Pollard to Health Secretary Matt Hancock after he received worrying complaints about safety measures implemented in the Plymouth site. Thus proving Hancock can not claim ignorance of Sitel’s poor workplace safety record.

This intentional mismanagement and amoral profiteering from the NHS has continued for many years and the most recent attempt to put an end to it in Parliament was in October last year. However Johnson’s government decisively chose not to repeal the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Jon Ashworth, then Health and Social care Secretary, announced to Parliament that the Tories would not “restore a publicly provided and administered National Health Service and protect it from trade agreements that would allow private companies competing for services who put profit before public health and that could restrict policy decisions taken in the public interest.” If there was any doubt before, then the Tories voting to keep the NHS on the table in a post-Brexit trade negotiations has confirmed it.

However, much like Boris Johnson’s appalling ‘speech to the nation’ in April in which he not only blatantly chose to favour profit over working lives. Johnson then attempted to attribute the “apparent success” of the UK’s handling of the pandemic to the common sense of the British people, thereby shifting it on to the public and distancing themselves from the handling of the virus therefore building their defence to criticism and absolution of blame.

This sentiment was echoed in Sturgeon’s Covid briefing on Tuesday afternoon where she reminded the Scottish people not to drop their guard as restrictions were eased. This was explicitly in response to the Lanarkshire-based tracing centre outbreak. There has been a growing gulf between Westminster and Holyrood which has been exemplified by the difference in measures applied during the lockdown and, importantly, the difference in the number of infections and deaths between England and the other nations in the strained union.

However, Sturgeon going along with easing restrictions and placing the responsibility on individuals is a warning that the SNP remain committed to the same system driven by profit that the Tories are. If we want to protect lives then the onus is on us to build the resistance on both sides of the border.

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