Out of sight of public scrutiny, dozens of private companies have been awarded contracts to carry out work for the NHS, much of which could have been carried out by the NHS. These contracts have covered the Nightingale Hospitals, testing centres, laboratories, PPE procurement and staff recruitment.
Using procurement guidance issued in January 2020, companies have been awarded contracts through a fast-track process that has lacked transparency with no publication of the contract and no competitive tender. The details, including how much the contracts are worth have yet to be made public; there are new rules stating that the departments must publish the contract award notice within 30 days of its agreement, but almost none have done so, according to the Financial Times in early May.
The companies awarded contracts include some of the largest accountancy and outsourcing firms in the country, including Deloitte, KPMG, Serco and Capita. There has been little or no scrutiny and it is questionable whether some of the companies would have been appointed at all under normal circumstances if a thorough investigation had been made of whether they are qualified for the job.
A good example is Serco and G4S, both of which are reportedly in-line to be awarded a contract for contact tracing and already have contracts for testing centres. In 2019, Serco was fined £19.2m and had to pay £3.7 million in costs by the Serious Fraud Office over an electronic tagging scandal. Both Serco and G4S were accused of charging the government for electronically monitoring people who were either dead, in jail, or had left the country.
Within healthcare, Serco is best known for the scandal of the out-of-hours contract in Cornwall, which included falsifying data and not employing enough qualified staff.
A major winner of this rush to outsource work has been the giant accountancy firm, Deloitte, which was recruited in March by the Department of Health and Social Care to help create a network of up to 50 virus testing centres around the UK and by the Cabinet Office to assist with the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS staff. Deloitte then appointed several other companies to run the testing centres at a regional level, including Serco, G4S, Mitie, and Sodexo, and the pharmacy chain Boots.
Reports are already coming in of problems at these centres. The Guardian wrote of numerous reports of long queues at some facilities of up to five hours, with motorists stuck in their cars for hours, forbidden from opening windows and unable to use toilets or find water, workers with appointments turned away because of delays, leaking test vials, wrongly labelled samples, and lost test results at Nottingham and Wembley.
The sites are operated by companies, such as Sodexo and Serco, but Deloitte is managing logistics and data, including booking tests, getting samples to the labs and communicating the results. There are reports of long waits for test results and people having to email numerous times to chase their results.
The contract between The Cabinet Office and Deloitte for PPE procurement has put the company at centre stage of the pandemic response. It is probably fair to say that it has been found wanting. The lack of PPE and problems with sourcing has been an ongoing story, the latest being the shipment of gowns from Turkey, heralded as a major initiative by the government, but which has now been found to fail safety standards.
There have been numerous stories of UK manufacturers of PPE being overlooked, and figures in the UK manufacturing industry calling the process shambolic and a disaster. The Guardian reports that figures in the UK’s manufacturing industry have accused Deloitte of pursuing factories in China rather than focusing on UK factories.
Deloitte is also involved with some of the laboratories handling the tests; Lighthouse Labs is a coalition of private companies, including Amazon, Boots, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, and public bodies set up to test samples in three centres in Milton Keynes, Cheshire and Glasgow and Deloitte is involved, handling payroll, rotas and other logistics. There are significant concerns over the qualifications held by the staff and volunteers in the new Lighthouse Labs and the impact they are having on NHS-run labs.
The building, fitting out and running of the Nightingale hospitals has resulted in contracts for dozens of private companies. The big consultancy firm KPMG was hired by the government in March (under the new procurement rules with no competition) to act as a coordinator in the setting up of the Nightingale hospitals.
Another large outsourcing firm, Capita, was awarded a contract to help the NHS “vet and onboard thousands of returning nurses and doctors”. In the healthcare arena Capita is best known for its disastrous running of the primary care support contract, which included problems with the secure transfer of patient notes around the country, with notes going missing or delivered to the wrong surgery, and women being dropped from the cervical cancer screening programme.
Numerous other firms are profiting from the pandemic and the new procurement rules – the firm founded by Conservative donor Steve Parkin, Clipper Logistics, has been awarded government contracts to supply and deliver PPE to NHS trusts, care homes and other healthcare workers, in Birmingham, the outsourcing firm Interserve worked on the construction of the Nightingale hospital at the NEC, and it has also been awarded a contract to hire about 1,500 staff to run the Manchester Nightingale, and G4S has a contract to supply security guards for all the Nightingale hospitals.
Many view this large-scale influx of private companies to areas that the NHS should be organising, as further dismantling of the NHS and a power grab by private enterprise.
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