The smell of corruption
“A lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war,” was [according to J.M. Keynes] Stanley Baldwin’s comment on the House of Commons after the 1918 election. We imagine that he was referring to the greedy manufacturers who found their way into grubby Honours lists, but some people dispute this. When people look back in years to come on the UK’s handling of the COVID 19 crisis, will they say something similar about the current Tory Party ? We have known for a long time that the present government is struggling to cope with the crisis; lack of a clear strategy; ministerial incompetence; divisions within the cabinet; widespread lack of trust in politicians. But to the charge of incompetence we may now need to add corruption.
The root of the problem is that, in coping with the pressures of the pandemic, the government is now awarding contracts and handing out vast sums of money without any proper [parliamentary] scrutiny. We saw a rehearsal for this earlier in the year with BREXIT. In order to mitigate the potential consequences of a no-deal BREXIT, failing Grayling at the Department of Transport , awarded a £13.8 million contract to Seaborne Freight ferry company even though it had no ships. In total, £100 million worth of contracts were awarded to three companies – Brittany Ferries, DFDS and Seaborne – but these were ultimately scrapped at an estimated cost of £56.6 million after Brexit was delayed. The Department’s woes did not end there, for it then agreed an out-of-court settlement of £33 million with Eurotunnel, which claimed the rushed contracts had been handed out in a “secretive” way and it [Eurotunnel] should have been approached.
Now the current second spike of COVID infections and local lock-downs is largely a consequence of the abject failure of the £12 billion test-and-trace system. Which has signally failed to drive down the all-important infection rate. As a result we have a fast-rising number of infections, hospital admissions, and deaths; and widespread economic hardship, mainly in the hospitality sector. But some people are doing well out of this chaos.
Yesterday I talked for a few minutes with one of the staff in our local NHS medical practice. What is very difficult to accept is that the government’s ideological commitment to the private sector has led to some crazy decisions. The mantra of the current Tory government is ‘Public sector, inefficient and bureaucratic; private sector, efficient and dynamic’. But it just isn’t true. There is data both here and overseas that shows that test-and-trace is best handled at a local level. But the government is wholly committed to a centralised system. Though its own figures show that their system reaches only 62% of contacts against 97% for local authority systems. But the £12 billion budget for the centralised system means fat profits for some multinational corporations.
Baroness Dido Harding and her associates
The appointment of Baroness Harding to run the test-and-trace system is indicative of the issues. She is no doubt a very nice lady; good with animals and children. Her background is in corporate management; McKinsey, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Talk-Talk, where there was a massive hack of confidential customer information on her watch. For which she acquired the label, Dido, Queen of carnage. She was made a Conservative peer in 2014 by her friend David Cameron.
One of her other roles is to sit on the board of the Jockey Club. In March this year, when leading epidemiologists were arguing for a public lock-down, the Jockey Club went ahead with the lucrative Cheltenham Festival. Some 200, 000 punters packed into the race-course and onto the terraces over three days. It is now acknowledged to have been a super-spreader event, causing a significant spike in infections.
The Jockey Club is also closely involved at Newmarket, where the local MP is Matt Hancock, the hapless Health Secretary. Media reports suggest that Hancock receives very substantial financial support from wealthy people in the horse-racing business. “I’ll always support the wonderful sport of horse racing”, gushed Hancock in his election address.
One of the Jockey Club’s big annual events is the [Randox Health] Grand National. Earlier this year the government paid Randox, a global healthcare firm, £133 million to develop COVID testing kits. Owen Paterson, a former Conservative minister, is employed as a consultant by Randox for a fee of £100, 000 a year. Did he facilitate the deal ? No-one knows. In July the government withdrew the kits from use on the grounds that they might be unsafe.
The names of Harding’s team at Test-and-Trace were not initially made public. It has since emerged that they include former executives from Jaguar Land Rover and Travelex, and Waitrose, and [surprise, surprise !] from Talk-Talk and Sainsbury’s. And the team also includes one public health professional. Some people can’t obtain tests. People who need tests are directed to centres at the other end of the country. Test results have been lost. Others have been sent overseas for analysis. As of yesterday, only 15% of tests are completed within 24 hours. Blustering Boris concedes that “there is some room for improvement”. The system is clearly a shambles. And Harding has been been rewarded by being made head [concurrently] of the National Institute for Health Protection.
Staff in the NHS which struggles for cash may well wonder why consultants are reportedly being paid £6,000 a day to advise on the test-and-trace system. And why SERCO, for example, was awarded a £410 million contract with no competitive tendering and no penalty clause. [SERCO’s chairman is the grandson of a former Conservative prime minister and brother of a former Tory MP.] Is there no scrutiny of the way in which contracts are awarded and vast sums of money spent ? Well, yes. But the United Kingdom Anti-Corruption Champion since 2017 is John Harding, former McKinsey consultant and back-bench Tory MP. And the husband of Baroness Harding.
Cronyism has been endemic in the Tory Party for a long time. When the Royal Mail was privatised George Osborne’s best man, Peter Davies, was head of a hedge fund which made £36 million from the privatisation in under six months. Now PPE Medpro, a company that was incorporated in May this year with capital of £100 and no experience in the field, was awarded a contract, without tender, for £110 million of PPE. The company’s only qualification being that it has substantial links to Tory peer Baroness Mone and to Tory party donors.
Tragically, it looks increasingly as if the COVID 19 pandemic has become a profitable cash-cow for Tory-linked private firms. And a great opportunity for the government to pursue its ideological obsession with outsourcing wherever possible to the private sector. Blustering Boris claims to be a One Nation Tory with a commitment to levelling up. From here it looks more like a policy of robbing the poor to pay the rich. And their families and friends.