Customer service centre staff at Hays Travel have been working on the government’s Covid-19 contact-tracing operation, according to a weekend newspaper report.
The UK’s largest independent agency pitched for work on the coronavirus response in March as the virus was spreading and the travel industry was plunged into crisis.
A spokeswoman told The Observer that Hays Travel does not have a contract directly with the government, but has been subcontracted by two providers, whom she said the company could not name due to client confidentiality.
However, logistics company Serco, believed to have the largest prove contract with the government for Covid-19 contact tracing, confirmed that it has subcontracted Hays Travel to do some of the work, and more companies from the travel sector and other industries.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care also confirmed to the newspaper that: “Hays Travel has been subcontracted by Serco to provide support for NHS Test and Trace.
“Hays Travel was also subcontracted by Teleperformance [a French call centre ‘customer experience operation’] to provide limited support for FCO travel advice at the height of the pandemic and also some support for the 119 [testing contact centre] service.”
Serco and Hays Travel did not disclose details of the size or value of the subcontract for the contact-tracing operation.
The travel agency group last week started consultation with 878 staff who may be at risk of redundancy after the government’s sudden decision to advise against all but essential travel top Spain meant it could no longer keep on its 4,500 workforce.
David McCoy, professor of global public health at Queen Mary University of London, told The Observer it was “ludicrous” to have a travel agency tracing contacts of Covid-19 sufferers, and said the minimal training provided was “hopelessly inadequate”.
“Talking to people who may be carrying Covid-19 and encouraging them to self-isolate is skilled work and should ideally be done by people with knowledge and experience of public health, and legitimacy to be listened to,” he said.
“It makes no sense to have the work done by a travel agency in a call centre disconnected from the public health system. The private outsourcing is taking resources away from strengthening the public health front line, where capacity needs to be developed.”
The Hays Travel spokeswoman responded to criticism about the limited training by saying: “Training was provided as required by the client [Serco] by our highly skilled training academy.”
She said that as a travel company, Hays is “highly skilled in dealing with people with complex requirements”, and that: “Our call handlers meet the high standards required by our client at the level at which they operate.”
The idea to seek 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, she added.
Senior managers at the company approached a particular service centre that had been contracted to work on the response to the coronavirus but did not have enough skilled staff.
“Back in March, in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we could see our industry facing crisis and we decided to be very proactive in trying to secure work for our people – many of them did not qualify for the furlough scheme,” the spokeswoman added. “They are quality people and we wanted to find work for them to do.”
A Serco spokesperson said the company does not disclose profits made on individual contracts but that “the work that we are doing to support governments on Covid-related work is at lower margins than our normal work.”
The DHSC spokesperson added: “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.”