Covid 19 and Cronyism UK

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on September 24 2020

Shambolic Shitshow

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought untold suffering to many the world over. In the UK, there have been at least 41,367 deaths and 371,000 recorded cases. The real figures are probably much higher because the shambolic performance of Boris Johnson and his cabinet of incompetents gives no-one any confidence that the figures are correct. Sri Lanka has been outstandingly successful in dealing with the virus but has received little acknowledgement from the rest of the world. Western commentators who have noticed that there have been only 13 deaths in Sri Lanka and 43,000 in the UK have carped that Sri Lanka has overridden democracy and human rights and militarised the issue. Such tactics would be unacceptable in a beacon of democracy such as the UK. The real reason that the UK is in such a mess is that the government is giving priority to rewarding its cronies over the welfare and safety of its citizens. 

The Shambolocracy


Symptomatic of the cronyist approach of the current government is the meteoric rise of Dido Harding. In May 2020, Harding was appointed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock to head NHS Test and Trace, established to track and help prevent the spread of COVID-19. She has not done a good job but nevertheless, when the Government decided to abolish Public Health England, they appointed Baroness Harding to head the replacement body, the National Institute for Health Protection. She said she did not apply for the job. She has no qualifications for it. She is well-placed in the Tory chumocracy. She deserves an article all to herself.

Testing and Tracing  

The NHS website advises the public: “If you get any symptoms of COVID-19 (a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste) while you’re self-isolating: get a test to check if you have COVID-19 as soon as possible; anyone you live with must self-isolate until you’ve been tested and received your result; anyone in your support bubble must self-isolate until you’ve been tested and received your result”.

Unfortunately, in many areas it seems to be impossible to get a test. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that no-one should have to travel more than 75 miles for a test, after it was revealed that some were being sent hundreds of miles away. It seems quite a trek to have travel even 75 miles! Even people who work within the system and have good know-how are finding it difficult. A GP in north-west England, applied for a test for her seven-year-old son after he developed a continuous cough and changes to his sense of taste. After being offered a test in Sunderland, about 130 miles away, she applied via her local NHS’s staff portal – designed to prioritise health staff. She was directed to Telford, almost 100 miles away, and then to London, a distance of more than 200 miles. No home kits were available.

The Government has shut down a COVID-19 testing centre in Kent because it needs the land to prepare a lorry park for a no-deal Brexit.


Privatisation of the NHS has been happening by stealth since the early 1990s and Labour have been just as guilty as Conservative Governments. The current crisis has given an ideal opportunity for the Tories to reward their cronies and donors. Ministers have used special powers to ignore the usual tender procedures in order to award contracts to compliant private companies and global management consultant firms on the sly. 

Those thus rewarded are the usual suspects who have an abysmal record on previous contracts. Many contracts were granted to global accountants Deloitte, which then appointed outsourcing specialists Serco, Sitel, Mitie, G4S and Sodexo, and the pharmacy chain Boots, to manage the testing centres. A coalition of private companies and public bodies have come together to form Lighthouse Labs, to test samples in three centres in Milton Keynes, Cheshire and Glasgow. Clipper Logistics, a Yorkshire-based logistics and supply chain firm founded by the Conservative donor Steve Parkin, was awarded Government contracts to supply and deliver protective equipment to NHS trusts, care homes other healthcare workers. Critics have accused Deloitte of getting supplies from China – where prices have leapt and supply is tight – rather than focusing on retooling UK factories to make PPE. Retooling of factories to produce PPE has been a key part of the Sri Lankan strategy.

Private Is not better than Public

I worked in the UK civil service in Manchester in the 70s and in various departments of London HQ from 1982 to 1997. I have more experience of the NHS than Baroness Harding. I was able to see at first hand the corrosive effects of creeping privatisation and outsourcing in many areas of Government business. I did a number of detailed studies which demonstrated that the idea that the private sector was always more efficient than the public sector was a myth. 

We can see during the current crisis that the NHS is being undermined because of the government’s voodoo philosophy about the entrepreneurial spirit of their cronies in the private sector. Serco and Sitel only reached 55 per cent of those in the worst-hit areas in the four weeks to 9 September. The privately-run pillar of test and trace has failed to improve since August when ministers renewed the contracts of Serco and Sitel, who have been paid £200m between them.

Matt Hancock refers to “NHS Test and Trace” and sticks the NHS logo on it but it isn’t formally part of the NHS at all (and Serco call handlers certainly aren’t). Private outsourced online and call centres reached only 59.8 per cent of contacts whereas local public health teams reached 97.3 per cent. NHS hospitals turn around test results within 24 hours in over 90 per cent of cases while mobile test centres and drive-through test centres achieve 53.2 per cent. Some in the health service are increasingly worried that ‘NHS Test and Trace’ is undermining the NHS’s brand.

According to the Treasury, £10bn of public money has been allocated to England’s test and trace programme. Only £300m of additional funding has been offered to local authorities to support the system. Allyson Pollock is clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University and author of NHS plc: the Privatisation of Our Health Care. She has joined more than 100 public figures – including academics, journalists and health professionals – in writing to Matt Hancock, demanding he publishes the contracts given to private companies as part of the test and trace system. “Right now, we can’t see how much they’re being paid, for how long and for what. How are these contracts being monitored and by whom? What about subcontractors, and their contractual agreements?”

Operation Bullshit

Civil servants were instructed to carry out a plan for all 68 million people in the UK to be tested weekly. Health secretary Matt Hancock has insisted the Government is aiming to achieve the “moonshot” of population-wide testing for COVID-19 – but declined to give any timescale on when it could be implemented. “Ramp it up” is the latest meaningless slogan from this inept team.

Civil servants greeted the scheme with incredulity, given the Government’s previous record on testing and tracing. One senior civil servant told openDemocracy: “We all double-checked the figures,” and described the plans as “crazy”.

Most of the work (and the profit) will go to Deloitte. Labour MP Clive Lewis has described the deal with Deloitte as “potentially the biggest NHS privatisation in history”. Lewis asked: “Why not give the contract to the NHS? It’s too easy to get the impression that this Government will hand out contracts to whoever happens to be mates with the right minister.”

On 21 September, the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, and the UK chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, made a rare live televised address to appeal directly to the British people. They warned that the COVID-19 trend is “heading in the wrong direction” and “a critical point has been reached”. The Prime Minister continues to bluster and pretend everything is fine while leaving it to his cronies to carry on messing things up.