In May, I wrote for Tribune about how the privatisation of the NHS supply chain played a major role in the deadly shortages of PPE our health staff faced at the first peak of the pandemic in the spring. With the system of procurement being outsourced in 2006, and divided into an unfathomable web of contracts twelve years later, the country sleepwalked into the Covid-19 crisis utterly unequipped to handle a public health emergency of this scale.
Instead of being able to quickly scale up procurement to meet the demands of the health service, we were left with a convoluted, dysfunctional mess in which private company after private company could siphon off a healthy chunk of profit, while consistently mismanaging their role in the system, and passing the blame onto someone else.
Now, the National Audit Office has released a report revealing that things were even worse than we ever could have imagined. The report shows that it wasn’t just a case of private companies making a killing from a pandemic which has seen more than 50,000 people tragically lose their lives. Instead, the government built a system whereby their mates in the private sector were handed juicy contracts to supply PPE – precisely because they were their mates.
If a company had links to politicians or senior officials in government, they were added to a ‘high priority’ channel. Companies that had these connections were ten times as likely to receive a government contract as those that did not. Over 200 companies were referred to the high priority channel by private offices of government ministers, MPs or members of the House of Lords. Why trust the people who have decades of experience in public health directing the process, when you could instead leave it to those born to rule?
Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether a company has any experience in manufacturing or sourcing PPE. All it takes to be given a key role in this country’s response to coronavirus is to have friends in high places, and a relationship with a Tory minister, MP or unelected Lord. The press has branded this ‘chumocracy,’ but they’re mincing their words. This is crooked, and it’s corrupt – plain and simple.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that so many of the companies that were picked were woefully unsuitable to do the job they were given. Take Pestfix – a company specialising in pest control supplies, not important health equipment. It was handed £350 million in part for delivering 600,000 masks which ultimately turned out not to meet the standards for hospital use.
An almost identical story can be seen with Ayanda Capital, paid £155 million in a deal brokered by an advisor to the Board of Trade which saw 50 million masks bought, none of which could be used by NHS workers. All the while, our health service was rocked by widespread shortages of PPE, likely leading to the deaths of NHS workers on the frontline of fighting the pandemic.
We shouldn’t be surprised. This is no aberration. Throughout the whole of this pandemic, the government has clung doggedly to its ideological obsession with outsourcing and privatisation. The revelations from the National Audit Office are merely its natural conclusion.
Handing contracts for the supply of PPE to companies with no experience of doing so because they have some link to the Conservative Party is just a chapter in the tail of absurdity that is outsourcing. It’s the same approach that gave us a contact tracing system managed by Serco – a company synonymous with disaster – that has consistently failed to identify and isolate the contacts of people who have contracted Covid-19.
It’s the same approach that gave us testing facilities managed by Randox, which Channel 4’s Dispatches this week alleged has been managing test processing facilities in a way which could be leading to people not receiving test results, cross contamination and workers facing unsafe conditions. And it’s the same approach which has been a contributing factor to the government’s total inability to get a handle on the virus.
But for every Pestfix, for every Serco, for every Randox, there is a local public health team, an NHS lab, a primary care service which is working tirelessly and effectively to bring us safely out of this crisis. From day one these are the people who have been at the forefront of ensuring that fewer people’s lives are needlessly lost.
Two weeks into another national lockdown, the government still has time to turn things around. But it would require a complete rewiring of its mindset when it comes to public service delivery and public health. If the government was serious about tackling the coronavirus crisis, it would abandon its dead-end strategy of outsourcing everything that moves, and invest in a proper, publicly delivered response.
If Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock won’t face up to this reality, we must keep fighting until we force them – and until we have a health service in public hands, run in the interest of people, not their mates in the private sector.