By Kevin Scott and Louise Scott
Staff working for Scotland’s Test and Protect Covid-19 tracing service are struggling to carry out their duties in a “toxic” environment as they try and deal with a huge number of calls, a whistleblower has told STV News.
The whistleblower, who STV News is identifying only as Brian, said employees are ‘overworked, not properly trained and stressed’ as the system struggles to deal with a record number of coronavirus infections.
The Test and Protect programme is designed to reduce the risk of the virus spreading and was rolled out across Scotland in May, 2020.
But there are concerns the service is struggling to cope.
Brian said staff are overwhelmed with the current volume of calls being received, adding that morale is at an all-time low.
He said: “People are coming out of training and going straight on to do contact tracing calls that are not done to the standard that they should be, not done within the time that they should be, which is putting people at risk especially contacts of index cases – they are still going about their daily business because nobody has been in touch with them.
“I’m pretty tired, it’s making me really anxious at work, I feel like this needs to be addressed. A number of staff feel like their concerns are not getting listened to, they get swept under the carpet by the senior management team.
“The amount of people who are actually leaving the service – because of the way the service is – is ridiculous and a number of core staff, who are actually contracted, have given up their roles to apply for bank work because the work they are getting as a core member of staff really isn’t flexible at all.
“It’s a really sort of toxic, not nice place to be. Certainly, with somewhere like the NHS I would have expected it to be much more organised, people’s wellbeing should be well looked after but at the moment it’s very much not.
“There are people leaving daily because of it and unless they get it sorted they’re going to see a mass exodus of staff and the situation will just get worse.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Friday it’s inevitable that Test and Protect would come under increased pressure when the number of cases across the country is high.
“They’re doing a fantastic job and I understand when people are under pressure it affects morale but please know how important a job you’re doing if you work in Test and Protect and how appreciated you are for doing it.”Nicola Sturgeon MSP, First Minister
Speaking at the Scottish Government’s coronavirus daily briefing, she said: “It’s a statement of the obvious that when case numbers are rising, Test and Protect is going to be under more pressure because the volume of work that it is doing is bigger.
“We support Test and Protect to bring on surge capacity and to do different things to cope with that but we can’t take away completely the pressure of having between 3-4000 cases being reported every day because that is 3-4000 cases that all have to be contact-traced and all of the follow-up work done there, so we’ll continue to support Test and Protect to work well.
“They’re doing a fantastic job and I understand when people are under pressure it affects morale but please know how important a job you’re doing if you work in Test and Protect and how appreciated you are for doing it.”
Sturgeon also urged the public to do their bit to help the programme.
“If you test positive and you know you have been in close contact with another individual, you don’t have to wait for Test and Protect to tell them that, you can tell them that straight away,” she said.
“This is principally my responsibility as the head of the government to make sure Test and Protect has all the resources it needs but as with every other aspect of this virus we can all help in dealing with the situation that we are currently facing.”
The concerns over the running of Test and Protect come as another four deaths and 3823 new cases of coronavirus were recorded in Scotland.
And Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the Scottish Government should “call in the cavalry” to ensure the number of contact tracers is increased after Scotland hit a record high level of Covid infections on Thursday.
He said: “The current Test and Protect system is failing us and potentially putting thousands at risk.
“Plummeting performance and the decision to turn off some contact tracing activities altogether because of a shortage of capacity must set alarm bells ringing.
“With Scotland facing its highest level of infections yet, now is the time to call in the contact tracing cavalry and ensure that there are enough staff to reverse this week’s collapse in contact tracing performance. This is the test of whether the Scottish Government has the extra staff that it promised would be available if necessary.“
Whistleblower Brian told STV News that some people who have tested positive for coronavirus have not received a call from Test and Protect up to 48 hours later, adding that’s “really not how it should be working”.
He said: “In the last few weeks, it’s been quite a stressful environment to be part of, a lot of the staff there are really overworked. The people who are working there are being moved around various phonelines throughout the day.
“At points, they receive training, for example, contact training or tracing or vaccine enquiry, and then they’re not put on that phone line for three weeks, so when it comes to then working on the line they’ve not been able to use their training, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’ll be told in the morning ‘you’re on this phoneline’ and then an hour later they might get moved somewhere else.
“There are far too many calls coming in for the amount of staff that there is, they’re making people work on a really unflexible six-week rota where some people are getting one weekend off in six, or if they do get two days off during the week it could be a Monday and then it could be a Friday, it’s really, really disorganised.”
Brian also said people were being asked to use their annual leave if they want to attend appointments, such as vaccinations.
“A number of people have asked for time off to attend appointments – that could be an hour or two throughout the day – and they’ve been told they need to take a full days’ annual leave to do that, even though they’ve offered to make up time,” he said
“A number of team leaders – 50 of them – have had to get together to raise a grievance with the team management because we’re having to manage contact trace practitioners who are the same level [but] our workload is tenfold to theirs.”
“This has been an issue that has been going on for a number of months, it’s been raised with team management a number of times but they’ve been very much slow on the comeback – they’ve cancelled meetings they were meant to attend because they didn’t want to try and address the situations but I would say, certainly over the last week or two, since the numbers have started to rise it’s been very, very disorganised.”
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Annie Wells said the Scottish Government had to ensure the “failing Track and Protect scheme” is working efficiently.
She said: “We welcome the SNP Government’s decision to finally set up drop-in clinics in each health board on Monday and strongly advise people to get their first or second dose at these clinics if it is faster than waiting for their appointment.
“Vaccinations and an effective Track and Trace programme are both vital to our way out of restrictions and resuming normality.”
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said the system is “reaching breaking point”, and accused the Government of a “dereliction of duty” because of an apparent failure to prepare for an increase in cases as restrictions were eased.
Before Friday’s briefing, Baillie had flagged contact tracing figures she said show the proportion of Test and Protect cases closed within 24 hours halved from a peak of 80% in early April to 40% in June.
Meanwhile, there has been a record-high 25,107 new coronavirus cases identified in Scotland over the last seven days.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We take concerns about staff wellbeing and workload very seriously. The Scottish Government is clear that all NHS staff have the right to speak up and that any issues relating to the working environment should be appropriately, thoroughly and robustly managed, in accordance with NHS Scotland policy.
“As the First Minister directly acknowledged today, our contact tracing staff across the country are doing an extraordinary job. They are a core part of our frontline pandemic response, and their resilience and adaptability in the wake of significantly rising case numbers in recent weeks has been simply outstanding.
“We continue to work proactively with health boards, directors of public health and with the National Contact Centre to further streamline processes with a view to significantly reducing the workload intensity associated with current high case volumes.
“Additionally, we continue to support ongoing recruitment processes in local contact tracing teams to ensure that teams are capable of deploying workforce in line with agreed scheduling requirements.”