Staff experienced 'toxic' work culture at tracing centre during Covid

Former employees of the National Contact Centre said mismanagement affected the quality of service offered to the public.

Staff experienced ‘toxic’ work culture at Scotland’s National Contact Centre during Covid pandemic iStock

Former employees of Scotland’s Covid-19 contact tracing centre say there was a “negative and toxic management culture” at the organisation that affected the quality of service offered to the public.

A group of 14 workers who were employed as staff at the National Contact Centre (NCC), have formally complained to health secretary Michael Matheson about their experiences.

They say their complaint calls into question the competency and culture of NCC senior management – many of whom remain in their posts.

The complaint also states the culture at the organisation had a detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of staff and organisational performance.

The NCC, formally known as the National Contact Tracing Centre (NCTC) is operated by NHS National Services Scotland (NSS).

It played a pivotal role in the Test and Protect programme and also ran the Covid-19 testing programme across Scotland, including local, regional and mobile test sites and laboratories.

In a report published in April 2021, the organisation said the work of colleagues across NSS “underpins many of the services provided across NHS Scotland during the Covid-19 outbreak”, adding that it had developed programmes “to ensure that all staff are properly supported whether they are working from home or on site”.

But the complaint, which was sent to Matheson on April 4, says that employees worked in a “shut up, don’t speak up” culture that hindered any opportunity to make internal improvements.

The complaint contains anonymised witness statements from the 14 members of staff, including the following testimonies:

Witness A – “We were constantly lied to regarding shift quantities and our importance in the pecking order of shift release. When xxxxxx took over management of the team we were warned prior to the meetings not to be disruptive and told what we could and couldn’t discuss.”

Witness B – “(There were) several occasions of staff ending up crying at group virtual meetings due to poor management of meetings.”

Witness C – “The culture was one of about 20 years ago when bosses told and you did – and not a collaborative team effort. The senior management were unapproachable and I encountered occasions where their emotions impacted their judgement.”

Witness E – “From the start there was a clear sense of disorganisation, poor communication and a lack of direction. In the beginning, this was put down to NCTC having been set up at short notice and still being in its very early days. But throughout my time there it felt like it was too easy to use this as an excuse, and those same issues just continued with time, if anything perhaps they got worse.”

Witness F – “When we were leaving, we were told about jobs being available so I applied. We were later told that Bank staff were not allowed to apply for the jobs, they were being earmarked for CORE people. This is discrimination and a breach of employment law.”

Witness H – “All too often I finished a shift in tears, unable to understand why we were being subjected to such inconceivable pressure and harassment in a constantly chaotic work environment. I will never forget what it was like working at NCC for two years. I only wish that I could.”

Witness M – “My distinct and lasting impression of the NCC is one of chaotic management, bullying and a stressful environment – none of which were the result of the pandemic itself but of an organisation that puts its managers first and its citizens second.”

Witness N – “I would be very reluctant to consider working for NHS Scotland in the future, for fear of experiencing this standard of senior management culture and ability. I cannot express just how incompetent the senior management were at NCC/NCTC. These are intelligent and well-paid individuals who I found were completely out of their professional depth and are an embarrassment to NSS Scotland/NHS Scotland.”

The Independent National Whistleblowing Officer published a report in August 2022 that identified several performance issues within the NCC.

But the complainants say they decided to formally complain of their own accord as they do not have sufficient confidence in senior management to respond positively to the whistleblowing allegations.

They also believe the terms of reference in the upcoming Covid-19 public inquiry doesn’t cover many of the issues they have raised.

NCC was established to support contact tracing

The NCC was established within NHS NSS, on behalf of Public Health Scotland, to support contact tracing.

Since April 2020, the organisation trained over 1,200 new employees to deliver the tracing function, according to a 2020/21 audit of NSS’ response to the pandemic.

Contact tracing ceased to exist in Scotland from May 1, 2022 after the Scottish Government announced a halt to testing for the general public – both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases.

NSS ‘disappointed’ at employees’ complaint

Mary Morgan, chief executive of the NSS, told STV News: “We have received a complaint from a small group of former NSS employees. 

“While we are disappointed that the group has not chosen to raise their concerns directly with NSS, we will respond to the claims as fully and swiftly as possible. 

“We remain grateful for the efforts of all NCC colleagues – current and former – for their vital role in helping NHS Scotland combat the spread of Covid-19.” 

Scottish Government closely monitoring investigation

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The success of Scotland’s Test and Protect programme which was one of the key interventions in our response to Covid-19 was due, in no small part, to the remarkable staff and volunteers.

“We’re grateful for the dedication and professionalism of the workforce for all they did to manage the impacts of the pandemic.

“We take complaints of this nature very seriously and will closely monitor the resultant investigation and outcome.”

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