THE Scottish Government has agreed to pay a private company £10m for help with Covid tracing, despite SNP ministers insisting the work is not being outsourced.

NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) has signed a deal with Glasgow telemarketing firm Pursuit Digital Ltd for “additional Test and Protect call centre capacity”.

NSS said the work would “free NHS colleagues to return to vital front-line services”.

Labour said it suggested there was “chaos” in the Test and Protect system. 

The deal, confirmed on the Government’s procurement website, was awarded directly rather than through competition under emergency Covid rules.

NSS said the reason was “extreme urgency brought about by events unforeseeable”.

The contract is for an initial two month period up January 3, with a possible extension to 31 March 2021.

If the contract is extended the full price would be £10.2m, suggesting it is costing around £2m a month.

In May, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said the Scottish Government would meet or exceed its target of finding 2,000 people to carry out contact tracing.

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

Last month there was a row over the private sector filling the gaps, after ministers said “all the work of identifying and tracing contacts will be done within Scotland’s NHS”.

It emerged NSS gave £1.29m to Motherwell-based call centre Ascensos and £1.8m to Barrhead Travel for the “immediate and rapid deployment of contact tracers”.

Accused at the time of reneging on her commitment, Nicola Sturgeon denied the use of private call centres amounted to outsourcing.

She said: “No parts of the contact tracing system is run by the private sector. 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.”

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon accused of 'spin' amid NHS contact tracing outsourcing row

Responding to the latest contract, Labour MSP Monica Lennon said: “It again shows chaos [in Test and Protect].

“On the one hand, when they’re public facing, ministers are saying this is in-house and NHS,  but millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is going to these private companies

“SNP Ministers were warned months ago to build up contact tracing capacity and draw on the 20,000 volunteers who offered their skills and expertise to the NHS during the first wave.

“The increasing reliance on outsourcing raises a number of serious questions about the Scottish Government’s management of Test and Protect and the consequences for lives and livelihoods.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton added: "Until we get a vaccine, public health and public freedoms are entirely dependent on the strengths of the testing, tracing and spot-checking systems.

"The Scottish Government squandered the summer lull when they should have built up capacity and we're still playing catch up.

"This week's figures show that just shy of 450 people who received a positive diagnosis weren't interviewed within the first 24 hours of Test and Protect being told. 

"Those delays put their contacts, and the public as a whole, at risk.

"People have made sacrifices for months and the government needs to keep its side of the bargain.

"That must involve being fully transparent about how many tracers we have and how many more are available."

A spokesperson for Pursuit said: “As one of Scotland’s leading contact centre and digital technology providers, we have been engaged by NHS National Services Scotland to provide support to the National Contact Tracing Centre.

"Our contract is subject to performance targets and our team is prepared to meet the demands of any requirements specified by NHS National Services Scotland.”

A spokesperson for NHS National Services Scotland said: “NSS has agreed a contract with Pursuit to provide staff in support of the vital work of Scotland’s National Contact Tracing Centre (NCTC).

“This strengthens capacity across the full range of tracing activity that NCTC delivers in support of our NHS and communities across Scotland.

“Pursuit have been contracted on a short-term basis, initially until January 3, with the option to extend until April 1 following a robust review of performance and dependent upon demand.

“To comply with procurement regulations, published award notices must include maximum potential costs, such as assuming all optional extensions are agreed and completed.

"In the vast majority of cases, total contract costs fall significantly below the sum stated in the award notice.

“All staff provided will be based in the UK and trained to the same high standards as NHS colleagues working within Scotland’s NCTC.

“This partnership ensures resilience, achieves maximum value for our NHS and enables NCTC to scale up or down swiftly to support Scotland’s Test and Protect programme.

“Our NHS continues to lead our national contact tracing programme, working in partnership with health boards, laboratories and testing centres and supported by Scottish Government.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “All contact tracing in Scotland is, and will remain, NHS led and in no reasonable circumstance could this be considered outsourcing.

“This additional resource does not replace our NHS led service.

"All provider staff are appropriately trained, operating under the direction of National Services Scotland to ensure quality is maintained.”