THE Scottish Government is paying more than £3m to private firms to help with contact tracing, despite Nicola Sturgeon denying the work is being out-sourced.

NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) tonight revealed it was paying Barrhead Travel £1.8m because of "a need for an immediate and rapid deployment of contact tracers" up to the end of the year.

Nicola Sturgeon confirmed on Wednesday that call handlers facing losing their jobs with the company had been hired to help with the Scottish Test and Protect system, but the cost was not disclosed.

It followed a row over NSS paying Motherwell call handlers Ascensos £1.29m for eight weeks of similar work. 

Accused of reneging on a pledge that "all the work of identifying and tracing contacts will be done within Scotland's NHS", the First Minister denied it was outsourcing.

She said: "No parts of the contact tracing system is run by the private sector, and I want to make that perfectly clear.

"This small number of staff recruited from the private sector work within the NHS system, they work under direction of the NHS, they are trained in Test and Protect, they work as part of that integrated NHS system – they are not working to a private company that has been given the responsibility of running contact tracing.

"That's not semantics, that's a very, very different thing."

In May, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said the Scottish Government would meet or beat its target of 2,000 people who could contact trace.

However, it was reported in September that Scotland had just 874 contact tracers available.

NSS also awarded consultants KPMG a £500,000 contract in May for "programme support services" for "trace, test, isolate and support".

Later in the same month, it also awarded a £790,000 deal to Buckinghamshire-based 8x8 Ltd, who provide online communications systems, for "virtual contact centre software and services", work categorised as a "Contact Centre Service for Contact Tracing".

And last month, NSS awarded a contract for £23,750 to Glasgow-based Elite Training and Consultancy Ltd for the "delivery of on boarding digital events for Contact Tracing".

In addition, NSS also awarded a £330,000 contract to Irish firm Nearform Ltd in July for "a proximity tracing app for Scotland and technical support services".

The Scottish Government said: "All contact tracing in Scotland is NHS led. Nearly all National Contact Tracing Centre employees work from home, and the majority of recruited contact tracers will also work from home, which is in line with Scottish Government requirements.

"All data is held and stored securely on the NHS Scotland Contact Tracing Case Management System; recruited contact tracers may use their company's equipment to access the system, but the system is wholly owned, operated and managed by NHS Scotland."