Analysis: Fears over private firms in Scottish contact tracing while new tiers have publicans crying in their beers

Question: When is the outsourcing of government work to private firms, not outsourcing? Answer: When the government agreeing the contracts knows how impossible it is to disperse the political stink associated with any part of Scotland’s NHS being “privatised”.

If anyone is aware the idea of privatising health services is anathema to many Scots, it’s Nicola Sturgeon. So it's little wonder that it was kept rather quiet that the Scottish Government had signed a £1.3 million contract with a call centre in Motherwell last month to carry out contact tracing services for the NHS, with a little work thrown the way of Barrhead Travel too.

And when the contract was revealed, the First Minister was at great pains to point out how different this kind of private sector work with the NHS was to the other kinds of contracts awarded to the private sector to carry out NHS work in other parts of the UK.

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Nicola Sturgeon: Scotland may introduce 'five-tier lockdown' system
The hospitality sector is looking at further restrictions. Bar staff Raymond Law Black Ivy re-opens their bar area and their restaurant today COVID 19; CORONA VIRUS - Scotland enters into Phase 3 of coming out of lockdown which means indoor eating in restaurants and pubs/bar are allowed to re-open

Certainly she wanted to be “really, really clear about this and leave no room for misapprehension” that the contract was not outsourcing, something “we have not and will not do”. Some may say she protested too much, but she was not going to allow people to yield to the “temptation … to paint this as something it’s not”.

Instead she painted a picture of a benevolent government “recruiting” staff from the private sector into the NHS to both help struggling firms and bolster the contact tracing service.

Furthermore, these new contact tracers were now fully part of the NHS and no longer in the private sector at all – “they work in the NHS system and under the direction of the NHS, they are not working to a private company – that’s not semantics, that’s a very different thing”.

But no matter how pretty the picture, there’s really no getting away from the fact that a deal has been signed with at least one private firm to supply a contact tracing service.

Even more puzzling was her statement that “less than 100” staff from Ascensos were involved in the £1.3m contract.

Quite where the vast majority of that money is going wasn’t specified. And as far as Barrhead Travel’s involvement goes, all that is needed to be known is “they’re working in an NHS-led delivered system, this is an NHS system – there is some scepticism about the validity and objectivity of that description elsewhere – but it’s absolutely the case in Scotland”.

Scepticism is something the First Minister must be used to, especially from the hospitality sector which is now facing an extension of the current lockdown which has seen pubs and restaurants in the Central Belt closed for the past fortnight. Indeed it might go on indefinitely when a new five-tier system – two more tiers than down south – is due to be unveiled on Friday.

Did this mean she had moved the goalposts for pubs? “If we weren’t prepared to shift the goalposts, the virus would beat us hands down,” she said. “The last thing you ever want to do is admit you’ve changed your mind, changed course, but if you take that approach in what we face now, we’re on a hiding to nothing.”

Changing her mind on outsourcing, however, has become an own goal she could easily have avoided.

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