As I wrote this piece the toxic adviser of our great leader, plus his mate, was booted out of Number 10 in a cloud of acrimony and fisticuffs. But I am not going down that rabbit hole – yet. Because that actually is a side show. Yes, despite this news, by far the key question of the day is, is this government of ours a total shambles and incompetent beyond measure with regard to dealing with Covid with the useless Test and Trace system as the foremost example of said incompetence? Absolutely yes, but is it all about bumbling uselessness or something more?  You could say that it’s all about a lazy, vain, unscrupulously ambitious leader surrounded by yes-men (and women) forever speaking incoherently, with his latest war-like metaphor about bugles coming over the horizon. And then, you’ve got Dido Harding in the midst of all this – how did she get there? Ah well….

Let me not continue to despair at this shambles of the tracking and tracing of Covid contacts, or get sucked into discussing the shenanigans in Downing Street and its meaning, or continue reeling back in astonishment at how things seem so badly organised and, and, seemingly, for a long time, unquestioned. Although, last week there were questions in Parliament from Sir Keir Starmer to Boris Johnson about the waste of public money and there is now an emerging view that we are living in a ‘chum-ocracy’.

Instead, let us attempt to unpick this. And why? Because we must. We must not forget in our enthusiasm and, perhaps, even desperation to get back to some form of ‘normality’, with the banishing of Cummings and the news of a vaccine, what this shambles is based upon. We must never, ever, forget that this government’s ineptitude is based on deliberate policy.

You see once upon a time there was a perfectly functioning Public Health department that was part of the NHS situated within every NHS locality. This department dealt with the health of its local population including its ill-health and the diseases thereof that contributed to the public’s ill-health. But the capacity of these departments was greatly reduced, when under the immensely complicated NHS and Social Care Act (2012) these departments within the NHS structures of the time were abolished and their remit fragmented between various bodies including Public Health England and the nation-wide Local Authorities. Nevertheless, these fragmented departments, especially those located within Local Authorities contained the medical experts that knew their area, and the people within their locality.

And has this expertise been used? No it has not. Instead there is a parallel centralised system of contracts and sub-contracts that bypasses all the local knowledge held within Local Authorities and their local public health departments, along with any expertise held by GPs, who are the boots on the ground, and their colleagues in Clinical Commissioning Groups and NHS Trusts.

And this parallel system has come about absolutely as a result of the government’s ideological commitment to reducing the reach of the state and its public services, by not funding these services properly in the first place. And then, because of the government’s total commitment to move towards privatisation and rewarding the private sector, by giving buckets of money to the private sector instead of giving that money to our expert public health officials who should be dealing with the pandemic.

I give you a definition:

Kleptocracy: a government or state which those in power exploit and appropriate the wealth of the nation by misappropriating government funds at the expense of the wider population. 

Yup that about sums it up, because, people, billions of our money, from our taxes, are being sprayed around at private contractors with connections to the Conservative party who are not delivering, and the expense to or of the wider population is that there are too many deaths in this land from Covid, and no leadership whatsoever that one can respect.

I now point you to a quote from an article I read quite recently: “They are so corrupt, a backbench Conservative MP said to me [the author – see *reference below) recently of his own party. ‘Which I almost wouldn’t mind if they weren’t so crap at it”. Yes, what I outline in the next few paragraphs is so brazen, that I struggle not to splutter and, to be absolutely honest with you, maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t mind quite so much if it was all working. But what is happening right now, is outrageous because there is not only incompetence there is near corruption.

Let’s start with plain ineptitude. As an ex-nurse I can tell you I didn’t particularly admire the look of those Nightingale hospitals.  They seemed to stretch out for ever in one long huge corridor of partly partitioned rooms, with what ventilation I wondered? And I wanted to know where were the rest rooms for nurses, where would they eat, where were the linen cupboards, the equipment stores? How would a nurse actually nurse in these places? I wondered if medics were consulted before or during the construction of these ‘hospitals’ or was it simply a building project that made politicians feel good and think they were doing something? Was it, anything China can do we can do better? Anyway, they are a vast waste of money as they have cost up to £350m and treated fewer than 100 patients.

I cannot even begin to tell you about all the contracts out there, as there is a multitude of these, but let’s start with our Test and Trace ‘system’, and I put it in those quote marks as there is no actual system in the sense of coherent organisation.

The sum of 12 billion has been bandied around as having been handed to Serco for this ‘system’, but the contract with Serco is actually around £410 million. In actual fact it is Deloitte, a consultancy firm, that in the first instance set up a network of testing centres nominating in turn Serco, Sodexo, Mitie, G4S and Boots to staff and manage these testing sites.

And how do they run these sites and the consequent tracing necessary, once a positive test is detected? Take Serco as an example, it is a British company that does a lot of stuff including Health, Transport, Justice, Immigration, Defence, and Citizens Services (?the latter, no, me neither) but note that because they didn’t have much experience with tracing (and who did? Well, the answer to that is of course, the old Public Health Departments) they in turn subcontracted the work, and apparently refuse to name the 30 sub-contractors that employ the bulk of the 10,500 contact-tracing staff, most of them badly supported and trained and on zero-hour contracts themselves. And note that they have consistently failed to reach 80% of an infected person’s contacts within 48hours, the time that contacts must be traced to prevent infecting others. And yet, who are these people in government who set up these contracts? Because there is apparently no penalty clause in these contracts so these bodies can blithely accept money with no consequences to them or their profits if they fail to deliver.

And then we have Dido Harding who heads up the fragmented NHS Test and Trace ‘system’, and I use the word NHS because unfortunately that is its actual name. So is Harding a medic, or an expert in public health? No, instead she is no stranger to organisational disaster, with the huge cyber-attack on Talk-Talk when she was its CEO and her performance dealing with said attack summed up as not exactly the best. And yet despite moving on from that post, her friendship with former Prime Minister David Cameron (who in 2014 made her a Baroness, so she is not actually Dido Harding, but Baroness Harding of Winscombe) and connections seem to have propelled her into being a professional board appointee with her position as chairwoman of NHS Improvement since 2017, and more recently, in the last few months, two appointments, heading (whatever that means) the aforesaid fragmented and sub-contracted Test and Trace system in May 2020, and in August 2020 getting another appointment as chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection, which will replace Public Health England. And don’t forget her position on the board of the Jockey Club, which runs British horse racing events including the super-spreader Cheltenham Festival.

Amazing, how people can rise and rise. Incidentally her husband, a Conservative MP, sits on the board of a think tank that calls for the NHS to be replaced by an insurance system and Public Heath England to be scrapped, which indeed it was, with his wife…. He is also, please note, the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion. You could not make this up.  If this country is not quite a kleptocracy it absolutely is a chum-ocracy.

It is important to note that since the pandemic began all competitive tendering has ceased and contracts are simply given to contractors, in the interests, of course, of speed.  But where has that speed got us? Apparently a total of 843 Covid-19 deals have been handed out at a cost of around £10 billion.

Let’s look closer at a very small number of these contracts:

  • Deloitte (who are accountants) – Deloitte runs the NHS Test and Trace by sub-contracting (see above) and employing ‘consultants’ at £6250 a day. It was also tasked to run a crisis unit to source PPE with many UK suppliers left hanging around with their calls and emails unanswered. The British Medical Association (see reference below) reports that they were contacted by 70 companies willing to supply PPE who were unable to communicate with the government.  Plus they run the logistics of super-labs (that’s going well)
  • DHL, Unipart and Movanto – all have contracts to procure and store PPE
  • Ayanda Capital, an investment firm specialising in currency trading, offshore property and private equity – £252 million for face masks of which 50 million masks were unusable as they did not fit properly
  • Public First, a PR firm – £1 million to run focus groups and manage communications
  • And don’t forget, Randox, a private healthcare company with a sitting Tory MP paid £100,000 a year as a consultant, whose testing kits were recalled over the summer as not fit to use – recently awarded a further £347 million to continue to provide testing kits, bringing their total award up to £500 million
  • It seems that many PPE contracts were given to companies with no expertise whatsoever in manufacturing PPE including a pest control company. Another example is that of a loss-making company run by a Conservative councillor – contracts to this company up to £227 million to provide PPE
  • And the new chair of the vaccine task force, Kate Bingham, who is married to the Conservative MP, Jesse Norman, who was at Eton at the same time as Johnson. Note that she wants to spend £670,000 hiring PR consultants from a firm that is very closely connected to Dominic Cummings’s father-in-law. I wonder if that contract will go ahead now?
  • Smaller businesses also managed to get contracts including a business that supplies beauty products run by a Tory donor – £65 million to manufacture face masks (see reference**below for all these)

How does this make you feel? Astonished? In a rage? Or simply frustrated that we, the public, cannot do anything about it.  OK, yes, maybe that is so, but we need to be constantly alert and aware of what is going on, we need to understand, we need to remember when this is all over that the private sector was not in any way more efficient than the public sector and crucially is eating its way into the heart of our public services. Indeed Serco’s Chief Executive Rupert Soames, grandson of Sir Winston, and brother of the former Minister Nicolas Soames has said that the pandemic, has gone “a long way in cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain.” (see reference *** below)

To those of you who live elsewhere and especially those of you over the pond it might sound strange that I am raging against the private sector and support the public sector so strongly, but here in the UK, no matter what political party, we, the public, greatly prize our NHS and our health and social services and of course, our schools, and really all the public sector services. But this government over the past ten years has starved this sector of money under the name of austerity supposedly the key to saving us all after the 2008 financial crisis, a cure, now seen as a disaster, and entirely the wrong thing to do.

So let us remember that this concerted effort to deal with the pandemic and the needs of the public and our nurses and medical staff almost solely through the private sector has not worked all that well, let us remember how much money has been thrown at that sector, because after all, what is the outcome of this out-sourcing? The outcome is that we have one the worst death rates in Europe. Yes, nations count things differently and Belgium, at the moment, has higher death rates, but people you cannot escape the fact that there are too many dying here in the UK.  And it is on your watch Johnson, your watch. History will judge you. And one day there will be an inquiry….

Penny Kocher, 16th November 2020

References *-**-*** Peter Geoghegan, Cronyism and Clientelism. London Review of Books Volume 42 Number 21, 5 November 2020

Further reading:

www.bma.org.uk/news-and-opinion Outsourced and undermined: the Covid-19 windfall for private providers. 20 September 2020

George Monbiot. The government’s secret Covid contracts are heaping misery on Britain. The Guardian

David Conn, David Pegg, Rob Evans, Juliette Garside and Felicity Lawrence. ‘Chumocracy: how Covid revealed the new shape of the Tory establishment. The Guardian, 15 November 2020

Umair Haque. The West’s Failure on Covid is Even More Staggering Than You Think. 13 November  2020

Gill Plimmer. £10bn Covid contracts without competitive tender come under scrutiny. Financial Times, 12 October 2020

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13 thoughts on “Are we living in a kleptocracy – yes we are!

  • 17th November 2020 at 09:27
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    I could weep as I read you blog, Penny, and I share your despair and anger. Have we made no progress since the 50s? We knew about the old boys network; the old school tie; the who you know, not what you know culture; but surely things changed in the 60s and 70s? It appears not.
    As we go forward, who is it will have suffered most throughout this pandemic? Our state school kids, our most impoverished, those just managing to survive, that’s who.

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    • 21st November 2020 at 09:16
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      Exactly so, Lindy. The only good thing at the moment is that this disgraceful situation re: the contracts is now being discussed in more media than just the Guardian. Also there is a body called The Good Law Project that is taking the government to court over said contracts. That might get somewhere – here’s hoping.

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  • 17th November 2020 at 10:32
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    Spot on again Penny. I seem to be spending my life in a constant state of rage. This old boys network placing unworthy individuals at the top of any pile and ignoring the experience and intelligence that the rest of society has to offer. And they think their success is due to their own natural talent.
    Must go now and lie in a darkened room for half an hour or so!
    Take care and keep well.

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    • 21st November 2020 at 09:20
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      Yes, it is so enraging to see mediocre people rise and rise because of who they know – ’tis the way of the world at the moment, but it needn’t be. Here’s hoping that one day there will be a reckoning. If not, history will be their judge. You take care too 🙂

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  • 17th November 2020 at 11:10
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    Penny, I applaud you for your analysis of the situation and for trying to get this out into the public domain because I have been constantly astonished at the sheer brazenness of this self-serving shower and how they get away with it. I cannot understand why this behaviour has not been called out, questioned and stopped in its tracks. Is it because we have such a feeble press and media who cannot be bothered to do their jobs but simply trot out the latest press release? We look to Channel 4 News and programmes like Dispatches for any kind of analysis of what is going on. As for the dead cat we were thrown last week, watching Cummings walk out of the front door of Downing Street clutching his box of tricks. Oh please, PR Stunt! We are being played, but I’m also constantly shocked at how little engagement the British general public seems to have. I often hear “Oh, I don’t know anything about politics”. Are they just fed up, genuinely not interested or in complete denial?

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    • 21st November 2020 at 09:27
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      I think that thankfully the situation has now seeped through to the mainstream media, especially with the millions thrown at that middle man, extraordinary when there were so many British manufacturers that were ignored.

      Yes, a few are in denial and actually peddle false news around but so many people have hard busy lives and just read their newspaper if they’ve got time or maybe just see what’s on their phones and we know that can be dangerous That’s why I like Piers Morgan (not all the time I hasten add) as if people do watch him they certainly know about some of the government’s misdeeds!

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  • 17th November 2020 at 19:04
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    One would think Boris and Donald were twins! Yes, I feel kleptocracy is an appropriate description—and, we in the good ole USA can truly identify. As “we the people” outnumber those in government, we need to speak up and loudly. Good for you! The situation of healthcare is not only unfair, it’s immoral. Take good care Penny and keep up your important work to expose those who put $ before humanity. Blessings, Kate (retired RN)

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    • 21st November 2020 at 09:37
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      Thank you Katherine, the writing and the detective work that goes with it keeps me sane. And we certainly do have to be vigilant as really what challenging and near dangerous times we live in, and I don’t mean that the danger is solely from the virus. Our wonderful public services, including our amazing NHS, are creaking under constant government tinkering and financial neglect and all in the name of an ideology that is about money-making through outsourcing and private contracts to bodies/companies/corporations that are profit-based. But they don’t deliver – that’s the thing, They’re flawed and inefficient, and with the Track andTrace as a prime example they do not have medical expertise and, this is key, local knowledge. So with this approach we have the worst stats in Europe – what a failure! That is what people have to realise! Will stop now! Blessings to you Kate and thanks for the comment.

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  • 18th November 2020 at 14:57
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    My doctor told me to avoid stress (heart issues) but that isn’t possible at the moment! I rage and despair daily in equal measure over these issues, about which you so eloquently write. Thank you Penny for verbalising my rage, thus enabling me to relax until the next tranche of revelations in the Guardian and on Channel 4. What lessons will be learned, I wonder? There seems to be so much apathy around, unless you count those who feel their liberty is being compromised over and above the greater good.

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    • 21st November 2020 at 09:46
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      Hi Jane, oh yes, the heart issues! Beta blockers are helping me a lot and I seem to have got over the myocarditis. Although whether I’m back to normal is another matter as, like the rest of the population, I don’t do anything that is normal! But you take care.

      Also I find the detective work necessary to write these pieces helps my sanity. Out of my utter disbelief that there is such incompetence (I mean I have some women friends who would run things better) I find the gathering of information and the sitting down and writing about it, actually takes me slightly away from my angst, as I’m concentrating on the mechanics of how can I write this, how can I express this, how can I illustrate this. I wonder, would writing a diary help. Could you write so a distant ancestor might say, oh that’s how my great, great, great grandmother or aunt felt during the 2020 pandemic. Not sure, maybe some mindful meditation tapes – I have one that I use over and over again to help me sleep which is still a bit of problem. Yikes we live in interesting times – which is a curse of course!

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  • 20th November 2020 at 11:58
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    Thank you for the research you have done for this post. I was aware of most of it through radio and newspapers and particularly Private Eye which can always be relied upon to ferret out the hidden truth. MD’s articles have provided a consistently clear and considered analysis of the Covid crisis as it has unfolded. It has been interesting to follow the ‘story’ as it has changed but exasperating too. As George Monbiot says, you feel ‘incandescent with rage’ the more you know about this venal government. I’m particularly angry about how taxpayers money has propped up the private medicine industry with lucrative contracts that will be paid whether or not the capacity is used. NHS waiting lists had fallen so much that the industry was on its knees without this handy boost. It is an awful reminder of what happened years ago to tackle long waiting lists for orthopaedic ops. The private hospitals would only take the least risky patients & if there were complications or discharge delays, transferred them back to the NHS which was not being funded to pick up the care! I would not mind so much if the private sector trained it’s own staff. Now there will be such long waiting lists for routine NHS care that they it will be busy again. Insurance won’t cover chronic conditions of course………………but I digress!.
    I’m no expert in public health but I knew at the beginning that you would need to bring the testing to the people rather than expect sick people to drive miles to a centre. How irresponsible was that and how it betrayed a total lack of knowledge about how most of us live. Of course low-paid
    workers will all have a car available to make the journey – not! If you want compliance from people it has to be made as easy as possible for them to achieve. The catastrophic loss of trust engendered by the Cummings affair has cost many lives and continues to do so, bleeding into the rise of spurious conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine. Compulsion is not the answer but we have to hope that the public will realise that the only way we can wake up from this nightmare is if enough people are vaccinated. I’m ready to have it as soon as I can ; I can’t understand the risks and benefits better than elite scientists. The reputational risks to their organisations and the real potential for litigation are strong drivers for caution. The speed at which this work has been done is down to governments covering the financial risks and the sheer hard work of all involved. However, it does leave a nasty taste in the mouth when you read that Pfizer’s CEO made £5.6 million by selling shares when the price rose due to the company’s announcement; sadly grist to the anti-vaxxers mill.
    Richard Horton’s (editor of the Lancet) early analysis ‘The Covid-19 Catastrophe’ suggests that Trump’s decision to cut funding to WHO constituted a crime against humanity & that our PM is guilty of misconduct in public office by saying that we were ‘well prepared’ for the ‘significant challenge’ of Covid-19. Either he didn’t know the reality of the situation or he lied about it, making him culpable. Horton is equally scathing about science policymaking which became corrupted & resulted in ‘an abuse of power’. The relationship between the politicians became collusive, protecting the government & supporting the illusion that the UK ‘s state of preparedness was ‘an international exemplar’.
    Unfortunately I do not expect anyone or any organisation to be held accountable for the horrendous mismanagement, outright lies and obfuscations that have characterised the way both our own and other governments have responded to the pandemic. There are, unbelievably, still people who support the PM (let’s not call him Boris – too familiar by half ) & I would not be at all surprised if another majority Conservative government at then next election!

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    • 21st November 2020 at 10:04
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      What a great comment Lynda and so many points to answer!

      I don’t think the lying that Johnson and his cronies does is in the same league as Trump who is peddling an alternative universe to real happenings like losing the election, but Johnson is following a mendacious ideology that has had disastrous ramifications for the health of our nation. Johnson also just doesn’t do the detail, so the combination the two have produced a disastrous response to Covid. I shall never forgive him for saying right at the beginning, ‘some of your loved ones will die’. He just wasn’t prepared to fight for our lives. And everything, every act, every statement, ever since has been bluster. But I won’t despair, there are people out there who see all this, and that’s what I hold on to. Also the contracts scandal is reaching the mainstream media now. And if we can’t get this government out in our next election, I shall sigh, and be deeply despondent, but history will judge Johnson and it won’t be pretty.

      Thanks again

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  • 24th November 2020 at 16:11
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    I am hoping that as people in your country realize what is going on the next election will bring positive changes. and the hope of a vaccine in the near future will end this awful virus. anyway, here in the US I am absolutely despondent that so many still still support a thugish, autocratic would be dictator. I have rarely been so depressed as the day after our election and the results were still not certain. the weeks following have been filled with anxiety. what is happening is unthinkable. yesterday at last there was the announcement that funds would be released so that Biden could begin to set up his government and talk to necessary staff. meanwhile trump will not concede and is doing his best to destroy the country and cause rifts with our allies. I learned that he just bailed out of the open skies program where we share survalilance data with allies and is destroying the highly specialized aircraft used in this important security activity, he is also trying to get oil drilling leased approved in the Artic refuge, home to many endangered species. and on and on and on. Not an easy time in either of our countries.

    Reply

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