What links a network of rapidly-converted field hospitals, a family run food and beverages company in Antrim, a network of “super-labs”, and Serco?

The final name has probably given it away: each of these is linked to a seemingly endless series of high-cost government or NHS blunders in awarding contracts related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Market intelligence firm Tussell explains in a July Factsheet the way in which the Covid emergency has loosened the purse strings of the Department of Health and Social Care, and the ditching of even the requirement to tender – with details emerging only after the contracts have been signed off behind closed doors:

“While public procurement is usually guided by competition regulations, in emergency situations such as this the public sector are able to directly award contracts relevant to their response to the crisis.”

Nightingales that didn’t fly

This is how, with no public discussion of the viability or wisdom of the project, NHS England was able to award contracts in March worth up to £350m to set up and run the seven temporary “Nightingale” field hospitals in England for just three months – beginning with London, with later, smaller equivalents in Bristol, Birmingham, County Durham, Manchester, Harrogate and Exeter.

Only London (with a total of 54 patients) and Manchester treated any in-patients at all. Indeed the desperate shortage of appropriately trained staff meant that the Nightingales could only operate at all by stripping vital front line staff from existing mainstream hospitals: they could never open more fully and were not considered suitable for the most serious Covid-19 patients.

Only the Harrogate and Exeter Nightingales, due to open this month, have any ongoing use – in delivering extra CT scanning capacity for the local NHS: the rest remain closed.

PPE mystery contracts

While the Nightingale contracts could be deemed an excessive precaution, the award by the Ministry of Defence or the DHSC of a number of relatively large contracts for PPE procurement to obscure and clearly unqualified and inappropriate companies with few if any staff, no assets and no relevant experience has no such justification.

At least one of these contracts is now subject of a legal challenge. Barrister Jolyon Maugham told City A.M: “This is the most bizarre thing I’ve seen in my 25 years at the bar. We just cannot understand why the government paid £108m to two guys who run a pest control firm using public money. It’s baffling.”

Tussell is still suggesting that with the NHS spending up to £14 billion on PPE, while directly awarded contracts are still going anyone fancying a slice of the Covid action should “consider reaching out directly to public bodies to offer your services.”

Tussell has helpfully highlighted a number of cases where this has worked. They include contracts worth:

  •  £109m to Crisp Websites Limited (trading as PestFix),
  • £108m to Antrim-based Clandeboye Agencies, a family-run from which manufactures Crunch Craving nuts and offers “a range of goods and services from confectionery lines to coffee machine rentals,”
  • £120m to Liverpool based P14 Medical Limited, a firm with £78,000 assets and liabilities of almost £1.3m);
  • and £25m to design company Luxe Lifestyle Ltd which appears to have no employees, no assets and no turnover.

No doubt an eventual public inquiry will discover what, if anything, the government received in the way of PPE from this £350m of public money, who decided to award the contracts, and on what basis.

Not so super labs

The perverse government decision to set up a new network of Lighthouse ‘super-labs’ – rather than utilise and expand the existing network of accredited NHS and public sector laboratories to process samples from the Covid-19 testing centres – was first revealed in The Lowdown at the end of April.

However the extent of the government determination to build up a parallel private lab network without any proper links to public health or local NHS is still emerging, as are the worrying revelations of the failure of the Lighthouse labs to deliver timely data, and their poor standards and inefficiency.

On June 28 the Independent revealed the new part-privatised labs were often taking 72 hours from the time they received tests to determine a result – by which point the results were of no use for wider strategy or policy, while local NHS labs could give results in six hours.

This was followed by a whistleblower’s report that dozens of shifts at one of the Lighthouse labs had been cancelled and staff paid to stay away because of a lack of test samples.

On July 2 The Guardian revealed plans to spend up to £5 billion over two years establishing a largely privatised expanded testing system, with expansion of the Lighthouse labs, and a further seven new commercially run laboratories to be added, potentially rising to as many as 29, “one for each NHS pathology region in England”.

Serco fails again

In May Serco, the company with a long line of NHS contract failures, whose former lobbyist Edward Argar is now a junior health minister, won the contract worth up to £90m for tracing contacts of people testing Covid-positive.

There were early warnings of inadequate training of call centre staff and shambolic systems,  with the private firm Sitel, also given a smaller contract to cover the work, reportedly doing no better.

Serco’s chief executive revealed that he doubted the scheme would evolve smoothly but admitted he wanted the contract to “cement the position of the private sector” in the NHS supply chain. It was admitted that the system would not be fully functional until the autumn.

By June 19 it was revealed that the “world beating” system was failing to contact a quarter of people testing positive and a poll showed only half the public trusted the company to deliver.

Figures showed the privatised system, with 25,000 mainly low paid staff, had contacted fewer than 10,000 of the 87,000 close contacts of Covid positive people – the bulk of successful contacts being delivered by local public health protection teams.

The issue in these continuing failures, from which no lessons appear to be learnt, is much more than the government’s ideological fixation on the private sector or the potential waste of tens or hundreds of millions in public funds: with lockdown being relaxed, the failure of contact tracing, like the failure to establish swift and reliable testing, and inadequate supply of PPE can put lives at risk.

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