“It’s time to kick the chancers and the profiteers out of our health system, and put the NHS back in charge of its own supply chain.”Cat Hobbs, We Own It
Few things demonstrate the government’s failure to get a grip on the Covid-19 pandemic more clearly than its catastrophic and disastrous handling of PPE. At least 300 health and care workers have lost their lives, and as Alex Bailin QC has highlighted, some of these deaths could have been avoided with proper PPE.
But this isn’t just a story of government incompetence. Rather, it is a story of a rotten ideology at the core of our health service, which has long festered within the process of sourcing medical equipment and supplies.
That ideology is privatisation – the wrong-headed, misguided and long disproven view that private companies are somehow more efficient and effective at delivering our public services. In fact, the PPE scandal is a perfect illustration of just how far from reality this is.
In 2006, the NHS supply chain was privatised and later divided into a ridiculously complex network of contracts held by private companies. As a result, the current supply chain forces every item of PPE through four different levels of profit taking, in which private companies take a slice at each stage of the process.
The inevitable result of this system is chaos, bureaucracy and endless fragmentation, as well as government being completely divorced from the actual process of sourcing PPE. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Matt Hancock and other government ministers have frequently stumbled through and evaded questioning on PPE supplies. And no wonder. They have next to no control or oversight of the process and have completely lost the reins on NHS governance.
Although the systemic absurdity of the current setup is plain, a brief glance at some of the key players and their mind-boggling levels of failure brings this even more to the fore.
Unipart is responsible for delivering PPE through its £730 million NHS logistics contract. Unipart’s CEO promised to ‘cure the NHS’ in 2013 but its “just in time” approach goes against the need to stockpile medical goods, such as PPE.
“Big four” accountancy firm Deloitte – known more for advising businesses on avoiding tax than for its delivery of healthcare functions – has won a series of major NHS contracts and is deeply tied to the UK’s coronavirus response. These include contracts to design the convoluted NHS procurement system in the first place, and more recently to manage logistics for PPE and testing centres. Its handling of PPE procurement was described by insiders in the manufacturing industry as a “disaster”.
Movianto won a £55 million contract in 2018 to provide a stockpile of medical equipment, most of which is PPE, in case of a pandemic. But the company was found to have been storing PPE in smoke damaged warehouses containing asbestos, and the army had to be called in to deal with the shambles.
And finally – Clipper Logistics, responsible for a separate PPE channel for NHS Trusts, GPs and care homes. Clipper’s chairman has donated a cool £725,000 to the Conservative Party in the last five years, and the company has been accused of threatening workers with disciplinary action over concerns about coming to work during the pandemic.
These are but a few examples. There are plenty more. And while the companies involved in the supply chain vary, with cultures and approaches that range from the fairly innocuous to the truly scandalous, they are all part of the same system. A system which puts the profits of companies above the well-being of patients and staff. A system so convoluted that it’s almost impossible to trace the source of problems and hold decision makers to account.
The unmitigated chaos of this system has been laid bare by the current pandemic. Now it’s time to end it for good. It’s time to kick the chancers and the profiteers out of our health system, and put the NHS back in charge of its own supply chain.
- To read more about the impact of NHS supply chain privatisation on PPE shortages, read We Own It’s latest report: Privatised and Unprepared – The NHS Supply Chain.