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The COVID Chumocracy

The UK under Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings is being governed by party stooges and corporate blobs lacking experience but offering loyalty, argues Sam Bright

Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his first Cabinet meeting at Downing Street. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Archive/PA Images

The COVID Chumocracy

The UK under Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings is being governed by party stooges and corporate blobs lacking experience but offering loyalty, argues Sam Bright

“There are two things about this virus that are counter-intuitive to a layman like me.”

These were the words of the Government’s Test and Trace tsar Dido Harding to Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee last Thursday, just moments after she got the day of the week wrong.

“Today is only Wednesday I believe,” she told the chair, Greg Clark MP, while trying to convince the committee that the UK’s testing system isn’t spontaneously combusting.

Harding, who professes to be a “layman” on matters portending to COVID-19, is the head of Test and Trace and interim chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection, responsible for ensuring an effective Government response to infectious diseases.

When pressed by Labour MP Graham Stringer on how she managed to acquire the latter role – one of the most prestigious health positions in the country – Harding explained that she had been asked to serve by Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock. There had been no open recruitment process.

Harding is seen as a friend of the Government; someone who won’t divert from the Dominic Cummings masterplan. But her credentials in the field of healthcare are weak.

Her first and only role in this sector has been, since 2017, the chair of NHS Improvement – responsible for overseeing NHS trusts and independent providers of NHS-funded care.

Harding’s background is actually in retail. From 2010 to 2017, she worked as the CEO of telecommunications firm TalkTalk, during which time the company suffered a cyber-attack that cost £60 million and 101,000 customers. In 2015, the year the cyber attack occurred, Harding took home a salary of £2.81 million – a £1.05 million increase from the year before.

Harding also currently holds a board position at the Jockey Club, a horse racing organisation that has given gifts to Hancock. Indeed, Harding is no stranger to politics, having been ennobled by former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014. Her husband, John Penrose, is a Conservative MP.

Having arguably been appointed on the basis of who she knows – rather than what she knows – Harding is now overseeing a crisis in the UK’s Coronavirus testing regime.

Byline Times reported in late August that testing turnaround times were in free-fall. The system has now effectively crashed, with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of tests as labs struggle to cope.

All the while, Harding claims that no one anticipated a rise in demand for tests during September – the month that kids went back to school, their parents were ordered back to the office, and huge discounts were given to hungry, sociable diners.

Harding’s appointment demonstrates a fallacy about Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign. It was never against experts or civil servants per se – it just wanted its experts and civil servants to be in charge; the ones who would follow the party line, rather than science and evidence.

This is evident throughout Government. Rishi Sunak – popular though he is – is only Chancellor because he was willing to have his views dictated by Cummings, whereas his predecessor Sajid Javid resigned at the prospect.

Even Matt Hancock only reached the upper echelons of Westminster because he won the patronage of former Chancellor George Osborne, working for Cameron’s number two as his chief of staff.

Others – such as the Home Secretary Priti Patel, Attorney General Suella Braverman, Cabinet Office Minister Gove and perpetually terrified Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – were all promoted as faithful allies of Vote Leave. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Transport chief Grant Shapps and Business Secretary Alok Sharma were surely only appointed to the top table because they will never rebel, so grateful are they to Johnson for hoisting them out of political irrelevance.

This is the model of Government in the UK: an Etonian old boys’ club in which positions are bestowed to allies and grouse-hunting buddies, rather than anyone vaguely qualified to do the job.

Contracting COVID

This jobs-for-the-boys mentality has underpinned the colossal recruiting and outsourcing campaign that has taken place during the Coronavirus crisis.

Take for example the PPE procurement contracts awarded to Conservative Party backers – amounting to at least £364 million, according to investigations by Byline Times.

The Test and Trace operation has been outsourced to Serco – a firm run by Rupert Soames, the old Etonian grandson of Winston Churchill. It and other corporate beneficiaries such as Deloitte, KPMG and G4S already have pre-existing, ingrained relationships with the Government.

Over recent years, these firms seem to have become an external arm of the Government – running public services it can’t or won’t. The firms in question have to be large enough to handle the scope of work, which precludes the vast majority of prospective competitors, and once they win one contract, they carry the advantage of ‘experience’ into any future Government bid.

Consequently, firms that run immigration detention centres in the UK now handle Government Coronavirus operations. These corporate giants are hardly specialists in healthcare; but are catch-all entities that have enough manpower and experience on paper to hoover-up outsourcing deals.

Presumably, seeing a market in the way private outsourcing is conducted in the UK, Johnson’s own brother has now taken on a directorship at a company that has recently expanded into Coronavirus testing.

The ostensible benefit of private sector outsourcing is to harness the knowledge and innovation of companies that work exclusively in a certain field. However, the firms repeatedly winning Government deals are corporate blobs with few distinguishing qualities versus the public sector, other than fewer resources and less accountability.

In some ways, Dominic Cummings is right: we do need to rethink how public services are delivered in this country. However, his solution – ferrying out public contracts to corporate giants and big tech firms – will merely compound the current mess.

The Government’s internal arithmetic doesn’t leave room for being wrong. Johnson and Cummings are so convinced about the inherent superiority of their beliefs that unwavering, quiet loyalty is the only thing demanded from agents of the administration. After all, why is alternative expertise and knowledge required, when the mission is rigid; solidified through its own perfection?

So, dissenters have been culled and intellectually-absent figures have been installed to carry out the bidding of Downing Street and its all-powerful generals.

As we have witnessed during this crisis, however, the Cummings-Johnson masterplan isn’t divine, and the people responsible for its implementation are dangerously out of their depth.

At this point, the phrase often used to describe government in the UK – “lions led by donkeys” – is a gross injustice to donkeys.

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