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a scam with serious consequences

Flanders has been shaken since Monday by a scandal that risks having serious consequences, both for the Flemish government and for the tracing of contamination in the north of the country. Serious indications point to the possibility of a vast fraud within a call center responsible for monitoring contact cases in Flanders.

Today, many of us have already been contacted by one of these call centers, either because we were positive for Covid, or because we have been in close contact with an infected person. These tracing centers have been in existence since May 2020 with the aim of breaking the chains of contamination. Each region is responsible for organizing and financing its tracking system. In Flanders, this management has been assigned to a consortium of six operators.

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According to an investigation by the daily Het Laatste Nieuws, one of these offices billed the Flemish authorities for several thousand working hours, while its employees were in fact doing something else entirely.

A well organized scam

According to information from Laatste Nieuws, Mifratel, a subsidiary of the Yource firm, set up a system to make it appear that its employees were working for contact tracing, when in fact, they were performing other tasks for the private mailbox account. We are talking about telephone surveys for chain stores, telecom companies or media groups.

While performing these other tasks, the forty or so employees concerned were simultaneously called upon to log into the official covid tracing system, and to display there that they were “Training“. It was therefore impossible for them to call Covid contacts, but their working hours were indeed paid. For almost a year, the services of the call center have thus been billed twice: on the one hand to the Flemish authorities, and on the other to its private clients.

“The authorities could have known”

Many are now wondering how this possible fraud could have taken place for so long, and especially why nobody noticed anything, especially since according to Laatste Nieuws, the Flemish authorities had all the cards in hand to discover these irregularities. The Flemish Health and Care Agency had access to the service lists of the various investigation offices. But so far, it would have been content to control the quality parameters of the tracing surveys and their final results.

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Another notable fact: some call center employees reportedly reported questionable methods to their superiors several months ago.

Last July, the opposition party Vooruit also warned the Flemish government of the existence of a fraudulent call center system, but Jan Jambon’s coalition failed to do so.

Political and health consequences

This whole affair will most likely have consequences for Flemish politicians. This Wednesday, the Flemish Minister of Health, Wouter Beke, will have to explain himself to the Flemish Parliament, which will lead to yet another debate on tracing centers, since some deputies had already criticized them, in particular for their cost and for their slowness.

There is also a risk of repercussions for covid contact tracing. The contract with Mifratel was in fact suspended even though this call center made nearly 20% of calls in Flanders. The Region will therefore have to make do with 390 fewer investigators, at the same time when the tracing centers are overwhelmed with work. Currently, half of the calls that must be made are not, and only one in two people contacted is within 24 hours of contamination.

Legal proceedings

Flanders has since launched an external audit of the other call centers of the consortium. The Flemish Health and Care Agency, for its part, lodged a complaint and demanded the reimbursement of false invoices, if they are confirmed.

It will therefore now be up to the courts to establish the existence of this organized fraud and to determine how much it will have cost Flemish taxpayers. The first estimates suggest an amount which would amount to more than one million euros.

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