Crony Virus UK

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on October 8 2020.

I have written in these pages before how the Sri Lankan government’s success in dealing with the Coronavirus compares with the abysmal failure of the UK government. Comparing the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with that of Boris Johnson is embarrassing to the latter. The disgusting thing about Johnson’s performance is that his cronies are being allowed, nay encouraged, to make huge profits out of the death and suffering caused by the pandemic. The NHS is being undermined by outsourcing and creeping privatisation and the NHS brand is being tainted by forced association with profiteering incompetents.

Outsource from the Experts

The usual suspects who have already messed up so many aspects of British life are being given reserved seats on the new gravy train. These are corporate disaster zones with less expertise than the public sector with fewer resources and less accountability.

Government documents reveal that huge public sector contracts have been granted to firms with little health experience. This includes a dormant firm given contracts worth more than £52 million.

The online news magazine Byline Times (“What the papers don’t say”) has done invaluable reporting on how private companies are being handed huge sums of money by the government to do work of which they are not capable. During the first wave, the Government doled out £5 billion to private companies. Most of these contracts were awarded without competitive tendering. £180 million worth of PPE contracts went to people with links to the Conservative Party.

On June 25 2020, the government gave PPE Medpro Limited a £122 million contract to supply gowns. The company claims to be “a specialist manufacturer of personal protective equipment”. However, there is no evidence to back this up. The firm was set up only 44 days previously by Anthony Page and Voirrey Coole, both of whom work for Knox House Trust, a corporate wealth and investment management firm that is based on the Isle of Man, an offshore tax haven. Spivs!

£150 million worth of the masks supplied by Ayanda Capital were not fit for use in the NHS. The Government paid £364 million for full-body ‘coveralls’, which works out at £840 per bodysuit. One of the companies given a contract was Kau Media Group which specialises in social media, search engine optimisation, online advertising and e-commerce – not supplying PPE.


Instead of putting local public health experts and NHS services in charge of contact tracing, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, gave the job to private companies with no experience except experience of failure in other fields.

A Serco official has admitted that one in five contacts reported to the coronavirus test and trace programme by individuals who have tested positive are untraceable. Serco is one of the outsourcing firms benefiting hugely from the pandemic. A £432m Serco contract for COVID contact tracing has a clause which allows Serco to effectively rewrite key terms on service provision. The company does not have a good track record and no experience of the health sector. Serco has previously been fined for deaths of workers and members of the public that could have been prevented. A report called “Impact of liberalisation on public safety in the transport, water and health care sectors” said, “These deaths show the wide range of ways in which public safety can be affected by contractors’ failings. There are some recurring themes in the inquests and official reports into these deaths.”

The scale of Serco’s involvement in the government’s approach to COVID has attracted controversy because of the firm’s close ties to senior Conservatives. Health minister Edward Argar was formerly head of public affairs at Serco, while the company’s chief executive Rupert Soames is another Old Etonian, the brother of former Tory MP and party grandee Nicholas Soames and grandson of Winston Churchill.

Hays Travel, the holidays agency that took over Thomas Cook last year, has been given additional contract work as a subcontractor for Serco. Staff have been banned from speaking about it publicly, but one said that they had been given insufficient training. “We are not medically trained and I believe members of the public believed they were ringing medically trained people. The system we used constantly changed, wasn’t always communicated correctly so there were times we were following the wrong procedures.”

Anti-privatisation campaigners WeOwnIt have demanded that “not a single penny more” should now go to Serco, and that the money should be redirected to local councils.

Nepotism and Bribery

Meller Designs was awarded new contracts for the supply of hand sanitiser and face masks worth £81.8 million. This added to the PPE deals given to the company in May worth £66.9 million. David Meller is the former chair of the infamous President’s Club (there was a scandal when waitresses at one of their events – including Financial Times journalists- alleged that attendees sexually assaulted them). David Meller has donated nearly £60,000 to the Conservatives since 2009. 

Globus (Shetland) UK won a contract £93.8 million contract in July for the supply of FFP3 respirators.  This is equivalent to the total revenue of the company over the past two years. The company claims on its website that it has 25 years’ experience in supplying “industry and healthcare”. This includes experience in manufacturing respirators. The firm also made a series of donations worth £400,000 to the Conservative Party since 2016.

Another Old Etonian and Oxford graduate is Max Johnson, half- brother of the prime minister. Max has joined the advisory board of health company REVIV, which has branched out into coronavirus testing. Dr Michael Barnish, Medical Director for REVIV Global, said Max would “help them open doors with the government”. The firm’s CEO, Sarah Lomas, said Mr Johnson’s appointment would be a “critical point” in the firm’s “aggressive growth”.

Motes and Beams

Sam Bright of Byline Times comments: “It is interesting to consider how the press would report on the government of a less developed country awarding millions in state contracts – without scrutiny or competition – to insiders of the regime.” I have found it impossible to get any hearing in the western media for the Covid success story of Sri Lanka. All they are interested in is what happened eleven years ago (another Sri Lankan success story distorted by western media).

Sam Bright again: “For a party that has been historically and fervently opposed to wasteful public spending, it is now deeply ironic that the Conservatives are shelling out billions in taxpayer cash without proper scrutiny or competition. Crisis or not, the public deserves to know how its money has been spent.”