Does cronyism cost lives?
Why has the UK the highest COVID death rate in Europe?
One answer may lie in the way the government has awarded contracts for key areas like the supply of PPE (vital for health and care staff, to avoid hospitals and care homes becoming super-spreaders) and test, track and trace (the key to successfully managing COVID-19 in countries as diverse as Taiwan and New Zealand, Germany and South Korea).
However, here in the UK the government repeatedly insisted on awarding contracts for PPE and for test, track and trace, often without any competitive process, to individuals and organisations with Conservative Party links rather than proven expertise in public health. It seems to have been a case of who you know, not what you know.
‘More than almost any other comparable state, Britain – or, more accurately England – has outsourced swathes of its pandemic response, often to companies with strong links to Conservative politicians but little obvious relevant experience.’
Peter Geoghegan Cronyism and Clientelism November 20201
Let’s take a few examples:
THE TRACK AND TRACE FIASCO
Serco was awarded contracts for Track and Trace, which could be worth up to £410 million. This was despite being fined £19.2 million by the Serious Fraud Office last year for misconduct in relation to a previous government contract.2 Perhaps it is just a coincidence that Health minister Edward Argar is a former Serco lobbyist and that Serco’s boss Rupert Soames is brother of former Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames. Since Serco has limited expertise in contact tracing it subcontracted the work to thirty or so subcontractors, who employed contact tracing staff, sometimes on zero hours contracts. The continuing underperformance of the government’s track and system, seen as a fiasco in many quarters, has enabled the continuing spread of the virus4.
FAULTY TEST KITS
Randox received £133 million for Covid testing, then hundreds of thousands of its test kits had to be recalled5. It could just be a coincidence but Randox is a Conservative Party donor and it employs Conservative MP Owen Patterson as a consultant (on a £100,000 a year contract)6.
Another company to benefit was Ayanda Capital. Despite specialising in ‘currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing’ it was awarded a £252 million contract to provide face masks, 50 million of which were never used after concerns were raised as to whether they provided ‘adequate fixing’ around the face7.
The Good Law Project reports that Matt Hancock’s lawyers have now admitted they planned to enter into that contract with a £100 company wholly owned by Liz Truss’ adviser Andrew Mills and his wife8. Liz Truss is Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade.
JUST PAID TO IMPORT FROM CHINA?
P14 Medical, based in Stroud, Gloucestershire, was awarded two contracts worth a total of £120m to supply PPE to the Department of Health and Social Care. Its Director, Steve Dechan, was a Conservative councillor9. The company, which specialises in pain management technologies rather than PPE, imported the PPE from China rather than manufacturing it itself. It was handed the contracts without a competitive tendering process and despite recording significant losses in 201910.
FAILING AT BOTH PPE AND TRACK AND TRACE?
Then there’s Deloitte. Despite being fined £4.2 million for its part in misconduct relating to a previous government contract it was called in to run a crisis unit to source PPE11. This resulted in a hotline being set up. Thousands of prospective suppliers emailed but only received an automated response12. Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith is a former Deloitte consultant.
Deloitte was then recruited to help run the NHS Test and Trace system – which has consistently underachieved, falling well short of the ‘world class system‘ promised13. In September SAGE described the current system as “having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment14.”
“Huge sums of public money have been awarded to companies with no discernible expertise. Sometimes the main qualification seems to be a political connection with key government figures.”
Jolyon Maugham QC Director, The Good Law Project15
The sad thing is that there is significant public health expertise in the UK which could have done so much to reduce the number of cases and the number of deaths, if only the government had been willing to take off its ideological blinkers and to award funding on the basis of competence rather than contacts.
Take Track and Trace. Where local authorities have been allowed to use their local expertise the results have been impressive16. For example, Blackburn with Darwen, one of the first local authorities to go live with tracing at the start of August, reported reaching 9 out of 10 cases that the national system couldn’t get through to, while another local authority to start in August, Calderdale Council, report reaching 86% of cases that otherwise wouldn’t have had their close contacts identified17. In October The Local Government Association reported that local contact tracing systems were having a 97% success rate at finding close contacts and advising them to self-isolate18.
We very much hope the government will learn from these experiences, in the interests of the nation’s health, the UK economy (so hard hit by COVID) and the government’s own reputation. In particular we suggest:
- Developing a more transparent process for fast tracking contracts during emergencies and placing relevant expertise at the heart of the process.
- Identifying and recording which companies bidding for contracts are donors to political parties and/or have close party contacts.
Michael Baber November 2020