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.
This week, 2.5 million ‘Diversity Built Britain’ 50p coins will come into circulation in the UK. The coin held up proudly by Chancellor of Exchequer Rishi Sunak has been designed by the prolific Dominique Evans off the ‘We Too Built Britain’ campaign. It is to represent Evans’ lived experience as a mixed-race woman of colour living in Britain. Although it does exactly that on the exterior, it fails to mention or even see the elephant in the room.
Campaigner Zehra Zaidi, a member of We Too Built Britain, said this new coin is to celebrate ethnic minority communities and the contributions they made to the UK. A coin that will “help bridge the nation’s past, diverse present and future.” As nice as that sentiment is, to imply that this coin is a token of gratitude is like saying a mere ‘thanks’ to countries that have built the UK for centuries.
The 50p coin is just a coin. A token that overlooks the history of what actually built Britain. It dismisses the shadow cast long ago by the Empire—colonialism wasn’t just felt by our ancestors but is still deeply rooted in our identities as second and third-generation children of immigrants—and neglects to see the current systemic racial negligence that is persistent in its perversity.
It alludes to the idea that it was since the dawn of recent immigration when grandparents like mine ‘came over’ post-1950s, that has since made Britain diverse. As if my grandparents were welcomed with open arms when encouraged to ‘rebuild’ Britain after World War II. To state ‘Diversity Built Britain’ in this blase manner fails to acknowledge how Britain looted $45 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938 and is still taking over a $1 trillion in Africa’s most valuable resources today. As if our country’s power doesn’t extend to British colonies around the world today and for example, has a financial hand in the Nigerian #EndSars protests.
It romanticises Brexit Britain as an equal-opportunities country for everyone, a post-racial utopia, when in fact, it’s the motherland of racism with a brutal class system that has been exported across the world.
I don’t expect the coin to share in tiny print the ways our men and women have historically fought in the World Wars for Britain. Or how our histories are interlinked with slavery. Or the current hold colonialism has on every industry (look at how large fashion retailers failed to pay factories in Bangladesh due to COVID-19 and how countries of the tropics are being affected by conscious corporate global warming decisions).
But I do expect more than a coin to be designed to counteract the racism in the UK as well as the lack of financial support for ethnic minority and working-class families in Britain during these times. £8 per person for those living in Greater Manchester during a Tier 3 lockdown, really? This is the gratitude shown to a city that is still deemed more working-class than other major parts of Britain, where a third of its population is from an ethnic minority household for its contribution to society.
The design of the coin has nothing to do with Dominique Evans’, her artistry nor her experience in Britain. This isn’t to diminish her work as this message is intended to be one that embraces those that make Britain diverse. Yet what’s that Madonna lyric? “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” Therefore, even right-wing language such as “diversity built Britain” is parallel to when millions of white Americans said after the Civil War said they no longer “see colour.” It’s a Karen telling you that what you are is finally acceptable as if Britain hasn’t been using our diversity for when it suits her best.
Meanwhile, as Sunak rejects a bill that helps fund the NHS in a global pandemic, where 28.4 per cent of doctors are immigrants and one in five of overall NHS staff are ethnic minorities within Britain, that’s cutting off literal life support. It disregards millions of NHS workers and the fact that it is diversity that’s keeping the country alive.
If Sunak continues to oppose motions such as the COVID-19 Economic Support Package to ensure areas that have been affected highly by a coronavirus are helped (Northern and working-class areas that have a large ethnic minority population), his coin remains as a literal token, nothing more than Monopoly money to those it concerns.