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
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