The public’s appreciation and respect for key workers, many of whom are employed in the support services sector, has been one of the few uplifting aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. As the nation emerges tentatively from lockdown, it’s worth reflecting on the role the support services industry has played in the national effort to contain and rollback COVID-19.
Our colleagues have helped the country to continue functioning during a national crisis unprecedented in peacetime. Interserve employs around 5,500 professionals in the health and care sectors, including care workers, cleaners, security guards, porters and maintenance specialists. Our staff support individuals who are unwell, elderly or vulnerable. They deliver blood, provide catering, clean hospitals and ambulances and make sure vital train stations are maintained so key workers can commute.
Our maintenance teams ensure a safe operating environment in factories, offices and other buildings. Our construction division built the NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham in less than a month.
The outsourcing sector has suffered from some bad press in recent years. A few government contracts have been poorly managed and it is right that companies have been held accountable for those failures. But the truth is that most contracts are well run and deliver value for money for clients in both the public and private sectors.
When it is done well, facilities management outsourcing frees up companies and organisations to concentrate on what they do best. The hospital manager can focus on reducing waiting times or increasing cancer survival rates and the management team at a retailer can deliver exceptional customer service while we take care of essential functions like catering or building maintenance. The manufacturer can prioritise product design or supply chain management, while Interserve ensure their factory is brought back online quickly and efficiently.
"Institutions have consistently told us they would have struggled to deliver the vital services they provide without our help."
"Most contracts are well run and deliver value for money for clients in both the public and private sectors."
Outsourcing is sometimes confused in the public mind with privatisation - but there is no question of the private sector taking ownership out of public hands. Outsourcing is simply the use of third-party specialists to deliver a business function or process over the lifetime of a contract. Government bodies, whether it’s the NHS or the Ministry of Defence, do not surrender control or accountability when they outsource an operation. Our support services workers do exactly what their name implies – provide support to organisations so they can devote precious management time and resource to fulfil their primary purpose.
Interserve workers have kept vital institutions going during lockdown, delivering facilities management services to the BBC; to eleven NHS Hospitals; six healthcare centres and the Scottish National Blood Service. We set up and run cleaning, catering, and waste disposal services for the North West Nightingale NHS Trust in just twelve days, and helped convert hotels to house homeless people with COVID-19.
These institutions have consistently told us they would have struggled to deliver the vital services they provide without our help and support at a time when their internal teams were busier than ever before carrying out critical work. We may not always be regarded as the face of the public sector, but we are on the frontline of public service - day in, day out.
According to the TUC, the outsourcing sector employs more than 3 million people. Witnessing the impact our public and private sector employees have made by working side-by-side has shown just how important that industry is. The battle to control the virus and save lives is far from over, but the work we carry out will continue to be vital as the nation emerges from lockdown.
Lynn Mawdsley is managing director of Interserve’s Support Services division.