Every week, the Tory government somehow manages to stoop lower, a trend that has only been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. Usually, I assume it’s down either to incompetence or ignorance—but very occasionally, they manage phenomenal levels of deliberate and obtuse corruption.
The number of large COVID-19 contracts have been awarded, without tender, to companies run by Tory donors and personal friends of cabinet ministers, Tory MPs, and the likes of Dominic Cummings. The government is using the ongoing crisis to find a way around the usual procedures for public procurement: in doing so, they are effectively funnelling taxpayer money to party backers and personal friends.
Labour MP Dawn Butler told The Byline Times: “It cannot be the case that Government contracts, even during a pandemic where fast decision making is essential, are awarded to political insiders and friends of this government and its ministers. That’s cronyism, or worse.”
Just last month, a dormant firm was awarded a £43.8 million deal to supply hand sanitiser. Since June, £1 million in deals have been handed to Public First, a company owned by a married couple, James Frayne and Rachel Wolf. Frayne has worked alongside both Cummings and Michael Gove when he was education secretary, and Wolf co-wrote the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto. The Daily Mirror reported last week that a total of £1 billion of coronavirus-related contracts have been handed to friends and party donors.
Rachel Reeves, Shadow Cabinet Office minister, told the Mirror: “It is outrageous that so much public money is being siphoned to Tory friends and donors. We need to know who agreed on these contracts, when and why.”
If only one of Johnson’s mates ran a company that provides schoolchildren with food during the holidays—it would have been funded in a heartbeat. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if a Tory donor set up a shell corporation to deal with holiday hunger over the Christmas holidays, just in time for the inevitable u-turn.
But the corruption extends to governmental appointments, too. Dido Harding, Baroness Harding of Winscombe, was appointed to head up NHS Test and Trace, a role she remains wholly unqualified for. However, perhaps it’s worth noting that she is married to a Tory MP, John Penrose, who also happens to be on the advisory board of 1828, a think tank that “calls for the NHS to be replaced by an insurance system and for Public Health England to be scrapped.”
Harding was made a Tory Peer by David Cameron when he was Prime Minister, with whom she happened to study at university. She also sits on the board of the Jockey Club, who own and run fifteen of Britain’s biggest and most famous racecourses, and was therefore involved in the decision to let this year’s Cheltenham Festival go ahead, despite the public health risk; there was a huge spike in coronavirus hospital admissions in Cheltenham and across Gloucestershire in the weeks following the festival.
Her most significant public position was as chief executive of the TalkTalk Group between 2010 and 2017. During her tenure, TalkTalk experienced one of the largest cyber-attacks in British history, with up to four million customers’ personal and financial data compromised. It lost the company £60 million and 95,000 customers. Harding refused to resign.
She is now in charge of NHS Test and Trace, which handles personal data for, potentially, everyone in England. Since her initial appointment, despite numerous issues with the rollout of Test and Trace, she has been promoted to the lead the National Institute for Health Protection, formed by an ongoing merger of Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace. This promotion was widely criticised, due to her lack of public health experience or expertise, as well as a potential conflict of interest, now that she serves as both a senior civil servant and sits in the House of Lords.
Of course, NHS Test and Trace is a bit of a misnomer: most of the work has been subcontracted to Serco, an “outsourcing giant” who has announced this week that it expects annual profits to exceed expectations. The shadow Health & Social Care Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, tweeted: “Virus is out of control, hospital admissions rising because Boris Johnson’s Serco Test & Trace failed.”
Data released last week showed that the official Test and Trace reached “only 62.6% of people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.” Meanwhile, local public health teams “reached 97.7% of identified contacts in the same period.” Earlier in October, it was revealed that some 16,000 coronavirus cases went unreported in the Test and Trace system due to the use of an Excel spreadsheet instead of actual database software. Labour MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, described the news as: “Scandalous.”
Occasionally—very occasionally—a senior Tory does speak sense. Over the weekend, Sir Bernard Jenkin, MP for Harwich and chair of the parliamentary liaison committee, called for Harding to be removed and replaced from her role. A former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, Jenkin is the most senior Tory to call for Harding to be removed, and to generally call into question the disastrous handling of test and trace. “The change must be visible and decisive … the immediate priority is to fill the vacuum of leadership,” he wrote.
Bring on the u-turns.