Today
Wed 3 March 2021

From crony contracts to Test and Trace turmoil, the Health and Social Care Secretary has been at the epicentre of Government incompetence during the Coronavirus pandemic, says Sam Bright

In electoral terms, the 20th Century is often described by historians as the “Conservative Century”, due to the party’s unmatched supremacy at the polls. The second party in British politics for most of this period, the Labour Party, only won six out of 25 general elections.

And while the turn of the 21st Century pushed the Conservatives into retreat – with Labour in power from 1997 to 2010 – the blue rosettes have since recovered their winning habit, prevailing in four consecutive elections, albeit with only a clear majority in two.

Whereas the Labour Party has appeared uncomfortable about sacrificing its principles on the altar of power, the Conservative Party is not so encumbered. Margaret Thatcher is the ideological Buddha of Tories – someone who advocated a low-tax, small state society. Yet, in 2019, the party united under a manifesto that advocated a radical state-led investment in hospitals, plus the mass recruitment of nurses and police officers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set about reversing the policies of his predecessor David Cameron – promising to heal the wounds created by Cameron’s austerity agenda – without a shred of embarrassment or contrition, epitomising the Conservative zeal for electoral success at all costs.

So, after 11 years in the political wilderness, it is perhaps unsurprising that Labour under Keir Starmer has taken to copying the Conservatives’ homework. This attitude was on full view yesterday, as the Labour leader refused to call for the resignation of Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.

On Friday, a High Court judge found that Hancock had acted unlawfully in failing to publish details of Government contracts related to COVID-19 within 30 days, as is required by law. Yet Starmer, speaking on Sky News, said that “calling for people to resign is not really what the public wants to see”.

In an attempt to rebuild trust in the Labour Party, it appears that Starmer is trying to synchronise with the attitudes of the British people. However, as a result, there will be opinions that should be expressed – because they are true – which the Labour leader is not willing to advocate, as they may be politically unpopular.

Matt Hancock’s untenable position is one of these.


Disaster Apathy

Some commentators have pointed out, correctly, that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has – on average – published contracts related to COVID-19 after 47 days. Just a 17-day delay. Given the chaos wrought by the pandemic, these commentators suggest that we should cut Hancock and his officials some slack.

There is a compelling counter-argument: that contracts should be published more promptly during the pandemic due to the vast sums involved. Yet, whichever argument is subscribed to – and I subscribe to the latter – publishing contracts three weeks late is probably not a sackable offence.

Rather, the contents of the contracts are the smoking gun. The Government’s procurement of private sector services during the Coronavirus pandemic has been a national humiliation, one for which Hancock should take full responsibility.

The DHSC was entirely unprepared for the crisis, yet dithered and delayed while COVID-19 visibly spread across Europe. As supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) trickled to the frontline last February and March, the Government embarked on an expensive, rushed effort to acquire masks, aprons and ventilators.

Hancock overpaid by roughly £12 billion, while the department “wasted hundreds of millions of pounds” on equipment that didn’t meet safety standards. The Government procured PPE from bizarre firms with little experience in delivering the necessary supplies, as doctors and nurses died on the frontline. Meanwhile, the biased procurement process favoured firms with ties to ministers, MPs and officials. Contracts worth at least £881 million have been awarded to Conservative Party donors, and Hancock himself has been linked to several of the companies that have profited.

There is only one valid criticism of the campaign for Hancock to resign – that it should have come in November, when the National Audit Office (NAO) released two damning reports, exposing his failures.

The Test and Trace system – a public health disaster of biblical proportions – merely adds to the overwhelming evidence against Hancock. The system employs 2,000 private sector consultants at a total cost of £2 million a day, yet has largely failed to cope with repeated surges in the transmission of COVID-19. Only 41% of people received their test results within 24 hours between the end of May and early November, for example, despite Boris Johnson’s pledge in June that all COVID-19 test results would be turned around in 24 hours by the end of that month.

The budget for Test and Trace is £22 billion – roughly the same as NASA’s annual accounts. A large chunk of this cash has been earmarked for the ‘Moonshot’ plan – involving the mass procurement of scientifically questionable lateral flow tests. Experts have pointed out that, in Liverpool, lateral flow tests picked up just 50% of positive cases identified by the “gold standard” (and slower) PCR tests, while 30% of high-viral-load cases were missed by the rapid tests.

Hancock has largely been shielded from blame due to the public blunders of Baroness Dido Harding, who runs the Test and Trace operation. But Hancock is the Secretary of State – the effective commander-in-chief of the UK’s testing system and the person responsible for one of the most expensive policy failures in British history.

On the basis of procurement alone, Hancock should have been discharged to the backbenches. Outsourcing failures, however, only partly contribute to Britain’s shining medal of dishonour – a death toll of 121,000 people and growing.

The Government’s lockdown judgements, while ultimately the responsibility of the Prime Minister, have been determined by a small, core group of ministers featuring Hancock, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office chief Michael Gove. Hancock occupied a seat at the top table while decisions were ducked and lockdowns delayed. He has been an active participant in this crisis, not merely an innocent passenger in Boris Johnson’s train wreck.

Perhaps the public’s reluctance to call for the resignation of Hancock speaks to low expectations. Our political class is infected by aggressive strains of incompetence, arrogance and deceit. Voters may well believe that this is the norm and so are apathetic rather than outraged when a system they believe is rotten causes widespread suffering.

The only way that we can resist this indifference to state-imposed carnage is by holding power to account and by calling for higher standards in public life. The institutional fiasco witnessed over the past 12 months is not normal – and it should never be accepted as such.

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