John Lister

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep pace with the rapid changes and abrupt U-turns in government policy on how to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.

The past fortnight has seen repeated U-turns on requiring the use facemasks, both in public transport and in NHS settings and care homes, along with varying figures on the R level – at local and national level – whether it was going up or down, and whether or not the alert level should be reduced from four to three.

Ministers justified relaxing the lockdown on the “world-beating Test and Trace” system they insisted would be in place by 1st June, only for an email from the head of the Test and Trace programme to reveal the next day that it would not be operational until September, while leaks revealed the poor level of training of the majority of test and trace staff.

Constant pressure to privatise

But one constant in this ebb and flow has been the growing and determined focus of ministers on bringing in management consultants to run services and private companies to do vital jobs that should properly be done by the NHS or by local government, including supplies of PPE.

Perhaps the most blatant example recently brought to light has been the decision back in April to award a mega £108m contract for procurement of PPE to PestFix, a family-run pest control company with just 16 employees and assets of £18,000.

The Times has also highlighted the award of a £2m contract to Double Dragon, a small company with a phone number does not work and business premises on a residential street in Ilford, which describes itself as a wholesaler of coffee, tea, cocoa and spices. It is now claiming to be a certified supplier to the NHS of medical-grade equipment.

Testing site contracts

Contracts to set up Covid-19 testing sites have been awarded to city analysts Deloittes, and sub-contracted to Serco, Sodexo, G4S, Mitie and others.

And the contract of up to £90m for running the vital track and trace system has been entrusted to Serco once again – a company with a long track record of contract failures, but Winston Churchill’s grandson as CEO and former lobbyist Edward Argar now a health minister.

A petition demanding Matt Hancock removes Serco and puts track and trace into the hands of experts in local government and NHS professionals has been launched by We Own It.

There have also been angry complaints at the profitable contracts handed out to develop the unproven track and trace app, and the even more questionable contracts which are handing over or opening up NHS data to other tech companies including Palantir, Faculty, Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

Meanwhile as we have warned in The Lowdown, it’s becoming increasingly clear NHS England and Matt Hancock see continued long term block booking of private hospital beds as central to their plans for the NHS to resume limited provision of elective treatment – while upwards of 30,000 NHS beds remain closed.

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John Lister

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