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Privatised Failure: The Conservatives Sidelined Public Health for the Market

Molly Scott Cato detects a pattern in the multiple failures of the UK Government to get to grips with the Coronavirus pandemic

Privatised FailureThe Conservatives Sidelined Public Health for the Market

Molly Scott Cato detects a pattern in the multiple failures of the UK Government to get to grips with the Coronavirus pandemic

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Testing, personal protective equipment, contact tracing: one after another the vital pieces of the machine we need to suppress the Coronavirus are being contracted out to private companies which are then failing. The cost has been the deaths of thousands of people.

The suspicion has long been that the decision to run the COVID-19 response through private companies was part of the market-driven mantra of ‘never waste a crisis’, with corporations so unscrupulous that – even now – they are more focused on profit than lives.

Now a leaked email from the CEO of Serco appears to confirms these suspicions, revealing how he doubted that the ‘test and trace’ scheme the company was contracted to provide would evolve smoothly but he wanted it to “cement the position of the private sector” in the NHS supply chain. 

Having been contacted with disturbing stories about the failures of the testing regime, I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Department of Health and Social Care, seeking more information about the role of private companies in the Coronavirus testing programme.

I learned that testing contracts have gone to a string of corporations with little or no medical expertise: Deloitte, Boots, Serco, G4S, Mitie, Levy and Sodexco. Together, they have appointed more than 5,000 staff overseeing testing at 50 regional test centres. These sites are being managed by one person qualified only as a first-aider. No wonder so many tests are not returning reliable results.

Many of these contracts have been awarded ‘without competing or advertising the requirement’ – in other words, the situation of emergency has allowed Government departments to hand these contracts to these companies with no questions asked. There have been at least 115 contracts handed out in this way – to run the tests, deliver food parcels and deliver PPE, as well as more centralised administrative tasks – with a total value of more than £1 billion.

As three Government scientific advisors have noted, it is not possible for the country to safely exit lockdown without a fully functioning testing and tracing regime. The ‘test and trace’ system launched this week is being led by Dido Harding, a communications executive with no medical training and who was the boss at TalkTalk when it suffered a massive data breach. She is sadly unlikely to inspire confidence in a public who will be asked to provide intimate information to a stranger which may then be shared via an equally anonymous app.

Contact tracing is inevitably a highly personal matter. When somebody you don’t know from an organisation you’ve never heard of based hundreds of miles away asks you about who you have had recent contact with, how likely are you to admit that you have sneaked out during quarantine to have sex with the next-door neighbour?

Contact tracing is always inevitably a local matter. If somebody tells you they have been to a certain social space it really matters whether it is a sweaty, enclosed nightclub packed to the gunnels or an outdoor café. This sort of local knowledge will enable a contact tracer to decide whether a certain contact was significant or not.

The question is: why does the Government believe that private-sector actors without experience can solve the problems thrown up by this pandemic better than those who have relevant expertise in public health and local authorities?

It is difficult to understand why the Boris Johnson administration firstly ignored and sidelined public health and university testing laboratories and is now doing the same with public health teams and local authorities across the country.

The establishment of parallel systems at a national level run through private corporations has encountered difficulties at every stage, with delays, incompetence and growing mistrust that will not be resolved by slapping the NHS logo on private consortia.

The Conservative Cabinet believes that the market always works better and that the public sector is bloated and inefficient. Bringing in companies such as Deloitte and Serco to help tackle COVID-19 is evidence of it continuing to expand the role of private corporations in the NHS.

Despite a decade of cuts and the disastrous 2012 Health and Social Care Act – which resulted in a fundamental reorganisation of the NHS – we had a world-class public health system that helped to train some of those in countries that are managing the pandemic much more successfully than we are.

It is hard not to think that the UK Government’s refusal to acknowledge its responsibility for the starvation of our public health infrastructure and to replace the funding lost from public health departments across the country also influenced its disastrous decision to centralise and privatise the country’s response to the pandemic.

If so, this decision was based on ideology, not science. While we will never be able to count the cost of human lives, it is clear that cronyism and a mania for privatisation has left incompetent individuals in charge of our response to the Coronavirus, while our skilled public health professionals have been left on the sidelines.

Molly Scott Cato is a former Green Party MEP for the South West

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