Atos have had enough, pull out of UK government medical examination work

What are we to make of the announcement last week from Atos, the IT and outsourcing firm, that they want to pull out of their medical services contract with the UK government's  Department of Work and Pensions? They have agreed to continue until replacement supplier(s) are found, but the message was clear - we want out, as soon as is humanly possible.

Atos has been the main contractor for many years, responsible for carrying out medical examinations that dictate whether people can receive disability-related cash benefits. Indeed, until recently, they were the sole supplier of the service. But now they want out, in part, they say, because their staff are being threatened on a regular basis by people upset about losing out because of the process.

The DWP meanwhile is apparently annoyed that Atos have gone public with this, saying it is not very professional behaviour.  I would tend to agree with that – you don’t want your suppliers washing anybody’s dirty linen in public really.

But we might also see things from Atos’ point of view. First of all, it isn’t good to have your staff threatened. No reasonable employer would want that, although it must happen to firms providing security guarding services, prison officers or even call centre workers on a pretty regular basis! I guess it is a bit different when the staff involved are medical professionals – they wouldn’t expect threats to be part of their core role really.

But is there also an element of Atos getting in with their retaliation first, as it were? It is public knowledge that DWP had some issues with the firm’s performance. As the Department said last week:

‘Atos were appointed the sole provider for delivering Work Capability Assessments by the previous government in 2008. In July last year we announced Atos had been instructed to enact a quality improvement plan to remedy the unacceptable reduction in quality identified in the written reports provided to the Department'.

So if Atos bosses felt that they were likely to lose the business anyway, with performance being given as the justification, then was it in their interest to put a different spin on matters?

It does however raise a couple of wider issues beyond these pure Atos events. Can anyone carry out this work satisfactorily? That's a question that DWP will have to face, or are there deep, intrinsic issues with the examinations process that will make any supplier struggle? I guess we will know in a year or so when we see how other suppliers are doing – Capita were introduced last year and others may well follow them into the frame.

And it does also highlight that any supplier can choose not to do work for any customer. We have commented previously on how the rhetoric from parts of government and the media about suppliers performing badly, ripping off the tax payer, or making excessive margins and so on might come back to bite the public sector. There is a very real fear that in other boardrooms, directors will be asking themselves; is this public sector stuff really worth the hassle, the aggro, the bad press, a squeeze on margins and lack of certainty about future business?

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Voices (7)

  1. David Atkinson:

    I was present at a conference in Paris this week where the keynote was given by a very senior ATOS executive.

    The highlight? How about this:

    “ATOS provides excellence in execution….the basis of our credibility….we must always deliver on our commitments.”

    There’s a joke in there somewhere.

  2. Paul R:

    Amazing when the NAO have said it costs £49 to administrate a new DLA claim while a new PIP claim costs £187! Hardly value for money, I wonder what it costs for a ESA claim…

  3. Ralph Gotts:

    perhaps if Atos had made proper investigations into people’s medical history and bothered to contact the healthcare workers involved in claimant’s medical issues, like GP’s or Consultants, they might have been able to come to conclusions that were accurate. However they have not done this, and I am speaking from personal experience

  4. Ian Makgill:

    Atos bill DWP an average of £8.5m a month, nearly half their total billing to Central Government. I suspect that most companies will absorb quite a lot of abuse for that sum.

  5. dan2:

    Atos should have contracted through a different company/brand set up for the contract. To the ‘man in the street’ the brand would have been a lot less tarnished and still known winning the Olympics IT contracts again and again.. A lot of the larger service companies do this when straying into ‘controversial’ territory e.g. Capita and their firm of Bailiffs – Equita.

  6. Paul R:

    ATOS have themselves to blame for the threats for doing the DWP dirty work. Sure threats arent acceptable, but you’ve got to look at the wider picture of welfare reform, such as people killing themselves or cutting their throats in the job centre. Doctors have been leaving because their medical opinions aren’t matching what the DWP and atos want. Hell even nurses are going off sick from the pressure. Did you know atos have a cure for cerebral palsy? They limited a lady claim to 6 months because her condition would improve in 6 months! Come on!

    The wider problem here is the government hatred for disabled people, not a procurement problem.

  7. Bill Atthetill:

    the contract has put them in the firing line of Private Eye so often. And when one reads the stories (in PE) – challenging folk with disabilities (some obviously very severe/acute…) to prove they are fit to work – I can only think that this must be one of the worst contracts to deliver anywhere in Government.

    Peter – I think you should ask your readers if they can think of any other contracts – to try and identify one that is worse! (A little competition, perhaps.).

    Surely, there must be one or two in the MOD, such as contracts with firms who design and manufacture ‘smart bullets’ (which kill people faster, or ‘efficiently maim them’), or ‘smart bombs’ (which turn out to be ‘not-so-smart’, when they wipe out innocent people in a building where they were sitting down to have dinner at the wrong time, in the wrong place…). It’s a close call…

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