Few people will be sad to see the back of Matt Hancock. His name will be etched into history, forever associated with the UK’s catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the way the government has prioritised private profit over public health.
On his watch, vast portions of the much vaunted ‘world-beating’ test and trace system were handed to the private sector in multi million pound contracts. The result—as described by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee—was a system with ‘no clear evidence’ of impact on curbing transmission of a virus which has taken the lives of over 100,000 people.
While Hancock was at the helm of the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), the government became synonymous with dodgy deals with private companies. Friends of Tory MPs and government ministers were gifted contracts for work they had no experience in. Companies that Hancock’s own family had an interest in taking hundreds of thousands in public money. NHS staff faced shortages of PPE while private companies laughed all the way to the bank after providing unusable equipment at the taxpayer’s expense.
All the while, Hancock talked up the prospects of further private involvement in the NHS and proposed legislation that would turbo charge privatisation – even putting private companies on NHS decision-making boards.
Good riddance doesn’t go far enough. But his replacement offers little in the way of optimism for the future of our health service.
With Hancock’s departure, the government had an opportunity for a clean slate. Boris Johnson could have taken this opportunity to kick the private companies that leech on our health service out for good. And he could have ensured that the advocates of privatisation in DHSC were shown the door, too.
Instead, we’ve got Sajid Javid, a man who was—until just days ago—a £150,000-a-year advisor to the multinational investment bank JP Morgan – a bank which is also a major player on the private healthcare scene. He joins Edward Argar in the Department, a junior minister who previously worked as head of public affairs at Serco in Europe. We now have a department riddled with ministers with intimate ties to the private sector in charge of our health service. It’s headed by a banker, and deputised by an outsourcing giant’s former spin doctor. The revolving door of privatisation keeps turning.
In and of itself, this would be bad enough. But Javid is also on record as being a strong advocate of privatisation of public services.
Speaking in the House of Commons in 2012, Javid argued that ‘the outsourcing of public services’ is an ‘excellent’ mechanism for the government to ‘receive the best possible value in return’ on taxpayer’s cash. He went on to advocate for ‘increasing the amount of services that we commission out’ in order to ‘drive quality through competition’ – and little wonder, given he has previously boasted of his first business success coming from his purchase of shares in previously publicly-owned services as part of Thatcher’s privatisation schemes in the eighties.
Ironically, in that 2012 speech, Javid referred to the probation service as an example of one area that could benefit from further outsourcing. That’s the same probation service that just this week was brought back into public ownership after the devastating impact of Chris Grayling’s privatisation.
Javid’s commitment to privatisation is hardly surprising. Similar comments have been made by countless Conservative MPs. But it nonetheless illustrates a point – that Hancock’s departure will not spell the end for the ideology he is wedded to. The problems with our NHS, and with our pandemic response, won’t be solved by changing the personnel at the top in DHSC. And they certainly won’t be solved by a former banker, an advisor to a company tied to the private health sector, or a long-term advocate of privatisation. Instead, they’ll be solved by ridding our health service of the scourge of privatisation for good.
So the last thing we need right now is a Health and Social Care Bill which would ramp up contracts given to private companies without tender, give private companies even more of a say in our NHS, and incentivise cuts that allow private companies to pocket even more public money.
If the government were serious about securing the long-term future of our health service, and about a safe exit from the pandemic, they would be proposing an NHS Reinstatement Bill, which puts the health service back on its original footing: publicly funded, publicly provided, and publicly owned. Free at the point of use, available to all, and with healthcare given based on clinical need – not on one’s ability to pay.
Matt Hancock will not be remembered fondly by history. If Javid wants to avoid a similar fate, he should abandon his instincts for privatisation and bring forward that Reinstatement Bill without delay.