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Having a mate in the Tory Party is just enough to get you potentially millions of pounds on government contracts – Pascale Robinson, We Own It.

“The flawed, wretched & malignant logic of privatisation has infected every inch of the government’s response to this pandemic.”

Pascale Robinson, We Own It

By Pascale Robinson, We Own It Campaigns Officer.

Each week, the government releases statistics on the test, track and trace system. Each week, those statistics demonstrate again and again that the system is fundamentally broken. This week is no different. According to the government’s own data, just 58.9% of contacts of people who had contracted COVID-19 were traced and asked to isolate by the national system managed by Serco and Sitel. That’s well below the target of 80% which is the minimum required for the system to actually make a difference to the spread of coronavirus. 

This story has been almost exactly the same week after week after week. There’s no wonder we hear little of the so-called “world-beating” nature of the system from the government anymore. And yet despite warm words, reassurances and promises to improve, the government hasn’t been able to turn things around. There’s a reason for this. That reason is privatisation. 

The truth is that the national system failing to track and isolate 4 out of every 10 contacts of people with COVID-19 isn’t inevitable. It’s a direct result of a government policy riddled with this toxic ideology. This is self-evident when you compare the record of the outsourced national system to that of the contact tracing done by local public health teams. The same week that Serco and Sitel managed to trace just over half of contacts, local public health teams managed 98.9%. And while Serco and Sitel have received multi-million pound contracts for managing a patently failing system, local councils, primary care services and the NHS remain cash strapped and hamstrung. 

Faced with this, any government interested in protecting public health or saving lives would have no doubt about what to do: Fund what’s working and cut what isn’t. 

Naturally, that’s not what this government has done, because that would entail reversing an obsession that’s driven forty years of policy on public services. That would entail recognising that public health provision – as with all public services – should be run with the interests of people, not profit at its heart. Instead, the government has clung doggedly to the clearly disproven notion that the private sector knows best, and the public sector can’t deliver. 

But it isn’t only in contact tracing that we’ve seen this. The flawed, wretched and malignant logic of privatisation has infected every inch of the government’s response to this pandemic. And twice this week, we’ve seen just how far this has gone. 

First, Channel 4’s Dispatches exposed the shocking impact of outsourcing in covid testing. On the programme, we saw Randox – a biotech company contracted to run test processing sites – accused of unbelievably shoddy practices that seem to be a clear danger to public health, playing fast and loose with workers’ safety. In one of its processing sites in County Antrim, Dispatches showed undercover evidence suggesting cross contamination of samples, workers handling infectious waste with inadequate protection, test results taking nearly five days to be processed and practices which could lead to huge numbers of people receiving no result from their tests. 

These practices led to a consultant microbiologist who has run an NHS pathology lab for ten years saying “we would be shut down if we behaved that way”. Rightfully so – given the major risk they’re causing to public health. And yet Randox gets away scot free, denying responsibility and passing the blame onto someone else. 

As the week went on, more staggering revelations emerged, this time through the National Audit Office’s report on procurement of PPE during the pandemic. Audit reports don’t usually set the world on fire, but this one certainly should. It showed how during the first peak of the pandemic in Spring, the government had set up a procurement system whereby contracts were ten times more likely to be awarded to companies that had a connection to Tory ministers, MPs or government officials – clear and brazen corruption by anybody’s book. Whether or not you had any experience or ability to manufacture or source PPE appears to matter not a jot. Rather, having a mate in the Conservative Party is just enough to get you potentially millions of pounds on government contracts. It’s a damning indictment on the rotten foundations of outsourcing.

These scandals matter beyond the short term headlines they create. They are what is driving the government’s inability to get a proper grip on the coronavirus crisis. They are what is meaning we’re facing more and more restrictions, and seeing the numbers of infections and death tragically go up and up and up. 

Now is the time to chart a different course. Now is the time to move towards a response to this pandemic which prioritises public health, not private profit. If the government really wants to save lives and get this virus under control, it would end turn its back on the disaster that is outsourcing and privatisation, and build a publicly run approach which would be able to suppress the virus and deliver what we desperately need.

  • Join Pascale, John McDonnell & others on 25th November at 7pm for the Labour Assembly Against Austerity’s event For a #PeoplesPlan to Protect Jobs & Livelihoods – register here.

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