Is there anyone left in Britain, apart from that tiny, tiny minority of individuals with a vested financial interest, who thinks that entrusting to private health capital Britain’s response to the pandemic was ever a good idea? The British Medical Association certainly don’t. Their report published mid-September, The Role of Private Outsourcing in the Covid 19 Response, is an expose and utter condemnation of how contracting out virtually every aspect of pandemic-related services has been an utter and complete disaster. It has cost tens of thousands of lives and has fatally undermined the ability of health services to cope with the now rapidly increasing infection rates.
A Covid strategy based on outsourcing vital services to private capital as we now know has resulted in a vault face on returns to work, yet more job losses and yet more economic contraction and debt. Added to this, Johnson has introduced the veiled threat of troops on the streets to enforce lockdown discipline. Meanwhile, the private companies’ jamboree continues. Companies at the centre of the government’s strategy, agreed on with barely a dissenting voice from Parliament, include such luminaries as Unipart, Serco, Capita and Deloitte to name but a few. Unipart was originally part of the state-owned conglomerate British Leyland, a distributor of service parts for BL (and later, Austin Rover) vehicles. It’s headquarters remain in Oxford’s Cowley Road, across the way from the still vast Mini factory now owned by BMW. Unipart has become one of the largest privately owned companies in Britain with, for the year ending 2016, a turnover of £747.7 million.
Up until March, it didn’t do health. Despite having no previous experience of working in health, Unipart was supposed to manage supply chain logistics overseeing the delivery of PPE. The PPE stockpile is further sub-contracted to another company, Movianto, as well as a growing number of other firms with no former appropriate experience or expertise — in one case including a pest control company. The contracts, awarded by the Ministry of Justice, are reportedly worth up to £120m but the supply has remained totally inadequate throughout.
As Professor Ewan Macdonald, one of the UK’s leading occupational health specialists, said in April, the level of protection would be “completely unacceptable in any other occupational setting… the whole thing was poor right at the beginning… it seems as if the government has been tailoring its advice to the availability of the PPE”. The extent to which Unipart and its subcontractors have failed is the extent to which health and social care workers have been exposed to life-threatening risks which have cost many of them their lives. At the beginning of September, after already being on the government’s payroll, the outsourcing giant Serco was given an additional £45m to run Covid19 Test Centres. The multi-million pound deal has not been made public, but provides a major additional role for the firm already responsible for the miserable failure that is the Test and Trace scheme, currently again being exposed as a inadequate as infection rates rise. It has also emerged that another big Serco contract, worth up to £432m, has a clause which allows Serco to rewrite key terms on service provision — terms which have been redacted and remain secret.
The move has been criticised by procurement experts as “unethical” and “bad practice”, with the government’s overall approach to the contract labelled “astonishing”. Even some Tories are shocked. David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary said, “There is no excuse for secrecy either over the number and size of the contracts and most particularly over the level of service the contracts deliver.” It’s shameful that Labour and the unions have not been publicly savaging Serco and the government for the last six months. As with much of the government’s Covid-19 strategy, Serco’s test centre contract has not been advertised or open to public competition. Nor has the government published it, despite government guidance that this should be done within 20 days of the contract being awarded. As we have discussed in Socialist Review previously, Serco is run by leading Tory crony Lady Dido Harding, who has no background in health service provision or any discernible evidence of ability of any kind. We could go on, but lets finish our appreciation of this swarm of private health locusts with a look at Deloitte, one of the ‘Big Four’ consultancy firms in Britain. A contract of undisclosed value was secured by Deloitte to set up and manage a network of 50 testing centres in England and Scotland.
The firm has been responsible for managing logistics across these sites as well as booking tests, sending samples to laboratories and communicating test results. Deloitte has sub-contracted Serco, Sodexo, Mitie, G4S and Boots to staff and manage operations at the testing sites. Those unable to access the testing sites had to rely on home testing kits produced by diagnostics company Randox (which was awarded a contract worth £133m) and dispatched by Amazon. Clearly, everyone has their snouts in the trough. In July it emerged that the swabs in some batches of the home testing kits were dud and they had to be withdrawn. One in seven of the home tests failed to give results, meaning some 18,000 people tested in July-August could not be sure whether they were infected or not.
A network of Lighthouse Laboratories was developed through a partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care, Medicines Discovery Catapult, UK Biocentre and the University of Glasgow. Deloitte was handed further responsibility for coordinating these labs, located in Milton Keynes, Glasgow, Cheshire and Cambridge. The company has failed to ensure anything like success, with centres consistently falling way short of the government’s own testing targets. And of course, we are as well to remember that Deloitte has just entered the Guinness Book of records for achieving the biggest fine for fraud ever given in Britain. On September 17, Deloitte was fined £15 million by the Financial Reporting Council, as well as ordered to pay an additional £5.6 million to cover the costs of the FRC’s investigation and the costs of an independent disciplinary tribunal, for the shoddy auditing of Autonomy, the British-based software company acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2011 which was involved in an epic accounting fraud. The FRC Tribunal found that Deloitte was, “culpable of serious and serial failures in discharge of a public interest duty.
The Tribunal made numerous findings of Misconduct… Deloitte, was liable for failures to act with integrity and objectivity… and failed to act with competence and due care and professional scepticism”. Just the kind of outfit you want to be in charge during an unprecedented global health crisis, then. This band of miscreants, loosely tied together by a joint desire to profit from the deadly chaos in which we now live, have shown themselves completely incapable of coordinating anything like adequate health provision. As the BMA themselves put it this private health capital approach sets the “potential for precious public resources to be wasted in unnecessary private outsourcing, where there is not a clear rationale behind the decision to outsource and the same function could have been delivered by the public sector without relying on commercial arrangements”. The BMA report adds yet more evidence to the already stacked-high pile of evidence to show that private health care is not ‘streamlined’ it’s bloated and unwieldy; its grossly inefficient to the point of being lethal; and it does not save lives that could be saved.
After six months of this profit-driven anarchy tens of thousands of people are no longer with us because our governing class chose to line the pockets of their pals rather than plan a meaningful Covid-19 strategy. As our central feature on health and social care this month shows, that there has not been even more needless death is solely down to the ingenuity, dedication and bravery of health and social care workers. Once again, whilst the bosses and their lackies have enriched themselves working people have come together to care for and protect those in need. Once again, the pandemic has shown that our interests as a class are diametrically opposed to theirs.