Today
Thu 6 May 2021

PPE procurement, Test and Trace, Nightingale hospitals, ventilators… Sam Bright rebuts the official rhetoric with some facts

“The Government said it did everything it could to get the right equipment.”

This was the official response to this morning’s BBC report, exposing how the Prime Minister was lobbied by billionaire Sir James Dyson to give his firm a tax break, so its staff could build ventilators in the UK at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am the first lord of the treasury [sic] and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need,” Boris Johnson reassured Dyson last March, whose firm is headquartered in Singapore. Its staff were thus at risk of tax penalties, if they switched to working in the UK.

This mantra – ‘we did everything we could’ – has been repeated by the Government endlessly during the past 12 months, when questioned by Byline Times and others about the goods and services that it has procured.

A Coronavirus death toll of 150,000 people – the highest in Europe – is a glaring and unavoidable fact that obstructs any claim that the Government excelled during this crisis.

But, on so many levels, aside from its basic (mis)management of the disease through delayed lockdowns and botched, epidemiologically illiterate relaxations, the Government has failed Britain at a time of desperate need.

Ministers have fallen back on a system of favours and inside deals, in turn clamping-down on competition and unleashing rampant cronyism. Given that ministers themselves have been appointed on the basis of their unwavering loyalty to Johnson and Brexit, rather than due to their superior knowledge or talent, this ‘jobs for the boys’ mentality is perhaps unsurprising.

Lobbying scandals involving former Prime Ministers, Johnson’s reliance on a few masters of high finance for his political funding, and the Conservative Party’s general lack of concern for the sources of its donations, are all facts that have further dampened the initial shock that many experienced about the multiple, unfolding stories of cronyism that have been exposed since last March.

The net effect, however, has been an unparalleled national calamity – one that is far from the Government’s evidence-free assertion that it has done everything in its power to quell a public health emergency.


Personal Protective Equipment

In mid-March last year, officials and ministers still believed that the existing procurement system would be able to cope with surging demand for personal protective equipment (PPE). They were quickly proven wrong.

And so began the scramble to purchase masks, gowns and visors from private sector firms in a bidding war with countries across Europe and Asia.

The Government vastly over-paid for the equipment, according to the National Audit Office – the independent spending watchdog. In normal times, the PPE procured by the Government before November would have cost £2.5 billion. In the chaos of 2020, it cost £15 billion. 

Despite this outpouring of public money, the goods did not arrive in time for many frontline health workers. Thousands of NHS and social care staff contracted COVID-19 during this period, and hundreds died. And, while NHS trusts received 80% of their estimated PPE need from the Government, social care providers were supplied with only 10%.

Shirking established suppliers, the Government implemented a procurement process that entrusted a number of unusual firms with delivering and shipping PPE.

Examples included a hotel carpeting company, a naval design firm, a Florida fashion designer, a four-month-old DNA analysis firm, a one-year-old ‘micro’ firm, a small “luxury packaging” company, a one-month-old firm owned by offshore finance specialists, a dormant firm, a company owned by an individual listed in the Panama Papers, a fast fashion supplier, and a lifestyle company with no employees or trading history.

This procurement process also featured a high-priority ‘VIP’ lane that benefitted firms with links to ministers, officials and MPs. Companies processed through this route were 10 times more likely to win a contract than their competitors, the NAO found. It said that there was “a lack of documentation recording the process for choosing the supplier, the justification for using emergency procurement, or any considerations around potential conflicts of interest”.

Yet, by November, the majority of the 32 billion items of PPE procured by the Government still hadn’t arrived. Even when they did arrive, the Government often didn’t have anywhere to store them – instead leaving the PPE in storage containers at ports, with eye-watering daily costs attached.

With PPE scattered across the country, the Auditor General of the NAO, Gareth Davies, has said that the Government does not know where all of the equipment is stored and has drafted in consultants to find it. “It certainly isn’t all sitting neatly in an NHS store somewhere,” he told a parliamentary committee.


Test and Trace

At multiple points during the pandemic, the country’s ‘Test and Trace’ system has been elevated to a heroic status – the weapon that could end the war against COVID-19.

Baroness Dido Harding was unilaterally appointed to run the programme at the outset of the pandemic, doing so on a voluntary basis. She was ennobled by David Cameron in 2014 and her husband, John Penrose, is a Conservative MP. He also works as the Government’s ‘anti-corruption champion’.

The system immediately ran into problems.

While testing and contact-tracing was being used to suppress the Coronavirus in Asia and parts of Europe, the UK’s scheme lagged far behind. This was the case throughout the first wave of infections, ultimately forcing Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock to pledge that, by the end of May 2020, the UK would be conducting 100,000 tests a day. This figure was only met after his department changed the way in which tests were recorded.

The system has also been repeatedly overwhelmed by high case rates. Only 41% of people, for example, received their test results within 24 hours between the end of last May and early November – 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.

While the system’s performance did improve in June, the proportion of tests turned around in 24 hours deteriorated to a low of 14% in mid-October, before rising to 38% in early November.

Mounting pressure on the system during the second wave of the virus also stalled the efforts of contact-tracers. By the middle of last October, the proportion of contacts – people who had been in close proximity to a positive case of COVID-19 – reached by tracers within 48 hours had fallen to 64%.

Meanwhile, the Government’s scientific advisors have suggested that less than 20% of people are fully self-isolating when they are asked to. Part of the reason for this, it has been suggested, is a lack of financial support provided to those forced to self-isolate – currently a £500 payment.

Epitomising the Government’s approach to the pandemic, the Test and Trace system has also relied heavily on the private sector. In December, the NAO noted that the Government spent an initial £720 million on contracts for 18,000 contact-tracing call handlers – awarded to the outsourcing giants Serco and Sitel. However, the NAO reported that, by June, call handler staff had only been occupied for 1% of their contracted, paid hours.

Recent reports have revealed that more than 2,000 private sector consultants have been employed by the Test and Trace operation, at an average cost of £1,000 a day. Baroness Harding has budgeted for just short of £500 million to be spent on this army of consultants, while the overall budget for Test and Trace has recently soared to £37 billion – comfortably more than the GDP of Latvia. The system has only recently handed more responsibility to local, established public health teams.

Billions of pounds has also been spent on rapid, lateral flow tests – the central element of the Government’s ‘Moonshot’ testing plan, which involves the mass and regular testing of the entire UK population. However, just last week, the Guardian reported that rapid COVID-19 testing may be scaled back in some parts of the country due to concerns that a high proportion of positive results are inaccurate.


Nightingale Hospitals

As COVID-19 cases soared during the first wave of the pandemic, and the Test and Trace system struggled to suppress an exponential rise in cases, Matt Hancock launched a series of Nightingale hospitals – to much fanfare.

The idea was that, if hospital wards became overwhelmed with patients – as had been witnessed in Italy – then people could be transferred to the emergency Nightingales for treatment.

Last month, however, the Government announced that the Nightingale facilities would be imminently closed. Ultimately, they treated very few patients, despite a combined price tag of £532 million. As reported by Byline Times in mid-December, the £66 million Nightingale facility in Birmingham, for instance, had not admitted a single patient in eight months.

This is partly down to the fact that pre-existing hospitals have never become overwhelmed with patients – a fact that should be celebrated. But poor planning from the Government is also a reasonable criticism.

One NHS procurement specialist told Byline Times that the Nightingale hospitals were deemed to be a fire hazard, due to the concentration of oxygen needed to treat a large number of COVID-19 patients in one location. It also appears as though the facilities were constructed without a full appreciation of the levels of staffing required to populate them.

“You just can’t have a doctor or nurse in two sites at once,” British Medical Association leader Dr Chaand Nagpaul told the BBC – pointing out that there are currently 80,000 unfilled vacancies in the NHS.


Ventilators

The irony of the messages between Boris Johnson and Sir James Dyson – and the Prime Minister’s fawning – is that just 41 days after the final exchange between the pair, Dyson was removed from the ventilator challenge scheme by the Cabinet Office. The Government had originally said that it intended to order 10,000 machines from the firm.

The Government made a number of commitments that it hoped would incentivise companies to produce ventilators. This included “protecting their private-sector partners from financial risk; making early commitments to contracts; paying cash up-front for ventilators before they could be inspected; showing a willingness to accept that prices were higher than the normal market rate”, according to the NAO.

As it turned out, the supply of ventilators in the UK far outstripped demand and the Government spent a total of £569 million on machines that have largely been kept in storage. Once again, established companies were shirked in favour of niche innovators.

Mike Galsworthy explains how much money has been wasted during the pandemic on Byline TV

These four crucial areas of Government policy in response to the Coronavirus pandemic have been marked by inconsistency. There has been a haphazard blend of over-compensation, negligence, overspending, secrecy and cronyism.

The Government’s ‘we did everything we could’ argument seems to be premised on the notion that ministers and officials may have occasionally spent too much, acted too hastily or disregarded competition procedures – but they only did so to protect the nation at a time of crisis.

Ultimately, however, the nation was not protected adequately enough. And, with tens of billions of pounds now saddled on the public purse, neither were our wallets.

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