They were hailed as stepping up to serve their country, with all the “rigorous” and “detailed” instruction needed for such an important role – but a programme to train thousands of contact-tracers to help control the spread of coronavirus has been described as shambolic and inadequate by recruits.

People hired to contact those exposed to someone with Covid-19 and advise them to self-isolate have reported spending days just trying to log into the online system, and virtual training sessions that left participants unclear about their roles.

New contact tracers have been told to rely on a two-page script and a list of frequently asked questions, both seen by the Guardian. When one taking part in a training session, run by contact centre company Sitel, asked for guidance on how to speak with somebody whose loved one had died of coronavirus, they were reportedly told to look at YouTube videos on the topic.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said on Monday that 21,000 contact tracers had been recruited across England, surpassing the initial target of 18,000. “They have rigorous training with detailed procedure designed by our experts at Public Health England,” he said. “They have stepped up to serve their country in their hour of need.”

Hancock claimed the government now had “the elements we need to roll out our national test and trace service: the testing capacity, the tracing capability and the technology”.

But one man, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Guardian he had spent three days getting paid, but receiving very little information or training.

He said he had applied for a job as a “Work at Home – Customer Service Adviser” for £10 an hour, which was advertised on the job website Indeed. He got an email checking he had the right software, and then received a call to tell him what the job entailed and ask when he could start.

He took part in a day of online training run by Sitel on Sunday, logging on to a remote system where there was one trainer for about 100 other people. “We had a chat

where we could ask him questions, but the first hour and a half of the training was just people writing, ‘I can’t hear anything’.”

Contact-tracing graphic
Contact-tracing graphic

“The trainer said [the problems] were normal and he’d been taking the sessions since last Wednesday,” said the man. “He was just being slammed with questions all the way through. He was saying, ‘guys, I can’t answer all your questions. There are too many of you’. He said at one point, ‘does anybody know what this job is about?’ No one really had any idea.”

The people in the training were told they would be acting as agents in the contact-tracing team, working on behalf of PHE. “You will be acting as the first point of contact with the contacts of confirmed positive cases of Covid-19,” they were told in a slide presentation seen by the Guardian.

They were told they would be calling up confirmed contacts of positive coronavirus cases, recording their data and escalating “more challenging cases” – including people who refused to cooperate – to more senior call handlers.

“After the full day of training, people were still asking the most basic things. Someone also asked what they should do if they spoke to someone whose relative had died of the virus and he said we should look on YouTube where there are lots of videos about empathy and sympathy when talking to someone,” said the man.

“Then I looked at the rota and it said I was starting the next morning at 9am,” he said. He logged in first thing and received a message saying “sit tight and wait for us to instruct you”. He did nothing all day, but got an email assuring him he would still get paid and was told that he would be doing more training soon.

One woman told the Guardian she had been recruited to be a contact tracer and had spent three days trying and failing to log into the Sitel system. “Matt Hancock was saying last night that it was all ready to go,” she said. “It’s not.”

Responding to the complaints about contact-tracing training, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care – also speaking on behalf of Sitel – said that recruits were being trained ahead of the rollout, so were not yet expected to make calls.

They said that all applicants were interviewed through a combination of online assessments and telephone screening and had to provide Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and Right to Work information. They added that a suggestion to use YouTube for advice on how to deal with a bereaved person would be investigated and was not in line with their training.

“Staff are trained on data security, customer service, safeguarding vulnerable children and adults, operating procedures, and when to escalate issues among other matters,” they said. “Only applicants that have passed the training modules and technical tests are allowed to move onto the next stage and start work.”

The testimony from contact tracers is the latest sign of problems with the government’s attempt to establish an efficient track, trace and isolate system, to allow the country to return to something close to normal life.

On Sunday, ministers were accused by Labour of “misstep after misstep” after contact tracing applicants were told recruitment was on hold while the government considered an alternative app.

Emails sent by one of the private-sector companies handling the recruitment process, Kent-based HR Go, said: “Unfortunately earlier today the roles were put on hold. This is due to a delay in the launch of the ‘Track and Trace’ app itself while the government considers an alternative app.”

DHSC said the email was “wrong and could cause confusion”, though a government spokesperson confirmed the next day that the rollout of the app would not take place by the middle of May, as initially promised.

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