From daily The Morning Star in Britain today:
Editorial: NHS outsourcing and the 50 million faulty face masks fiasco
THE wretched saga of the government’s purchase of 50 million unusable face masks has all the hallmarks of a classic Tory scandal.
Wearily we note that ministers insist there is no conflict of interest when the person who brokered the sale, Andrew Mills, is both a government adviser and sits on the board of Ayanda Capital, the firm that sold the substandard equipment to the state and made between £25 and £50 million doing so.
The revelation that the masks could not be used over concerns they were unsafe comes as part of the Good Law Project’s lawsuit against the government over the Ayanda Capital contract and others.
The lawsuit is driven by concerns that the Tories are handing contracts to cronies without any relevant experience in delivering what they say they will: project director Jolyon Maugham, previously more famous for repeated bids to have the EU referendum overturned in the courts and for boasting about beating a fox to death while wearing a kimono, points out reasonably enough that there is “cause for alarm” when PPE contracts of over £100m each are signed with “a pest control company, a confectioner and a family hedge fund.”
Labour calls for an inquiry. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves says the National Audit Office ought to investigate the government’s mishandling of personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies.
A ticking off from the National Audit Office will no doubt force ministers to change their ways, as it did when it condemned universal credit in 2018, or pointed out that benefit sanctions cost more than they save in 2016, or slapped George Osborne on the wrist for pretending loss-making sales of public assets were actually profitable in 2013.
Setting in motion the tired constitutional machinery by which ministers’ decisions are scrutinised and criticised after the fact is not an adequate response to this sordid deal, because its roots lie — as Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy points out — in the government’s entire outsourcing strategy.
Asking a wealth advisory firm like Ayanda to supply face masks is typical of a government that awards Brexit ferry contracts to a company with no ships, or gives serial outsourcers Serco a lucrative test-and-trace contract despite it having no track record in the field and having been fined over £1m just months before for bungling its last government contract. (Junior health minister Edward Argar used to be a lobbyist for Serco, but, of course, there is no conflict of interest).
The catastrophic failure to supply front-line workers with PPE, which has cost uncounted lives, has been exposed by campaign group We Own It as a consequence of the impact of privatisation and outsourcing on the NHS supply chain, creating “a chaotic mish-mash of private contractors managing the purchasing process,” in the words of director Cat Hobbes.
The campaign group’s investigation study Privatised and Unprepared: the NHS Supply Chain, published in May, pointed out that “this isn’t just a story about bad apples. It is a story of a flawed system that has helped turn the pandemic into an utter disaster.”
Labour remains theoretically committed to cleansing our NHS of private-sector providers, whose creeping infestation of the service undermines quality and accountability, enables the super-exploitation of outsourced workers and puts patients at risk.
But like so much that was bold and ambitious in the party’s prospectus, that demand is no longer raised, with criticism of the government carefully kept from implying criticism of the system itself.
Even if the courts demonstrate wrongdoing over a handful of contracts, such abuses are written into the process, especially given the revolving door between government and the businesses that bid for government contracts.
Cleaning the Augean stables requires a rather more radical challenge to the status quo, one that insists that public services should be publicly owned, publicly controlled and publicly delivered.