• Louize Small

A Very Private Pandemic

Is this really about our health?

Much fuss is made in the public domain about saving the NHS from privatisation but we need to wake up to the reality that the NHS has already been privatised. Public health services have slowly and stealthily been transferred to private companies over a number of years and this clandestine shift puts our lives at considerable risk. Profit and cost-cutting take priority over care of patients and our welfare is being brazenly sacrificed to enrich global corporations whose only concern is making rich people richer.

The NHS was born out of the awareness that taking care of the health of citizens should be a governmental responsibility. The Beveridge Report of 1942 identified ill health as one of the ‘five giants’ blighting the nation and called for a coherent plan for widespread reform. The Conservative government of the time were not keen on Beveridge’s proposals but the idea was very popular with the public. When Clement Attlee’s Labour Party took the reins in 1945, the wheels were set in motion to implement a national health service funded by general taxation.

The NHS constitution states that services should be available to everyone, free of charge at the point of delivery, and that provision should be based on clinical need, rather than an ability to pay. There were no market forces at inception and the whole system was managed directly by a hierarchy of NHS bodies. Our beloved organisation was permanently destroyed in 2012 when Andrew Lansley implemented the Health and Social Care Act, which required NHS services to be tendered on the open market.

Today, investment companies run our hospitals. The profit-driven private providers are not subject to the same standards of scrutiny as the NHS, meaning many people die in preventable circumstances. GP practices operate as small businesses and they need to manage and optimise complicated income streams. Medicines and services are incentivised and targets and key performance indicators take precedence over patient satisfaction. Receptionists without medical training act as gatekeepers and triage callers on the phone. Appointments with doctors are hard to come by and referrals are down, leaving the unwell frustrated, concerned and feeling uncared for. Health conditions worsen with missed diagnoses and long waiting lists.

The current Chief Executive of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens, was a friend of Boris Johnson at university and it was fellow Oxford alumnus David Cameron who appointed him to his current position in 2014. Stevens was at the NHS for a number of years before heading to America to work for UnitedHealth – the largest private health insurer in the world. Ten years later, he’s back and making reforms that, once again, seem to be driven by saving money rather than duty of care or maintenance of health.

Critics say the NHS has been deliberately run into the ground to justify privatisation measures and this is evidenced by understaffed hospitals with insufficient resources and exhausted workers. Staff absence due to mental health reasons costs the NHS £500 million a year and has seen a rise of 23% in the last five years (Laura Hyde Foundation). Doctors and nurses are taking their lives due to the resultant stress and trauma. Those who work hard to care for us at our most vulnerable moments are not given appropriate support themselves. It is unacceptable and unsustainable.

But not everyone is doing badly – some are doing very well. Serco, one of the main NHS contractors, saw profits in excess of £160 million in 2020, even though their much-maligned test and trace system was a shambles; it cost the taxpayer £108 million and was little more than a grand waste of money. Public Health England approached Serco in January 2020 to discuss pandemic preparedness and the contract was not put out to tender as it should have been.

Rupert Soames, the CEO of Serco is former Conservative MP Nicholas Soames’ brother and both are the grandsons of Winston Churchill. The main shareholder in Serco is Jupiter Asset Management, whose director is Edward Bonham-Carter, a member of an elite family, who is also a director of ITV. The more you look, the more you find that many of those getting rich from this pandemic are connected through politics, affluence and ancestry.

Serco, along with KPMG, were awarded contracts to construct and staff the Nightingale hospitals, which were barely used due to a lack of doctors and nurses to work in them. The designated buildings are mostly now on standby for future use, with at least one re-purposed as a mass vaccination centre. Very little information about these hospitals is available to the public and the government remain unaccountable for the colossal amounts of money spent and wasted.

Another global company profiting from the pandemic is Ayanda Capital. The firm was awarded a £252 million contract for PPE, even though they had no relevant experience in the field. The facemasks that Ayanda provided failed to meet government standards and were rendered useless on inspection. Senior Ayanda adviser Andrew Mills is also an adviser to the UK Board of Trade.

Logistics giant Uniserve were awarded contracts of £186 million. Its founder, Iain Liddell, is a director of 50 companies and was a speaker for lobby group Prosperity UK, which was founded by Lord Hill, former European Commissioner, and Sir Paul Marshall, a Brexiteer who donated to Gove and Johnson’s Brexit campaign. Again, there was no tender for the contract, which achieved terrible value for money; the facemasks it procured cost almost double the going rate at 87p vs. 51p.

The new head of NHS Test and Trace, Dido Harding, is paying 900 Deloitte consultants £1,000 per day of taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Ms Harding’s father was a Lord and her husband is John Penrose, a serving Conservative MP. David Cameron made Harding a life peer in 2014. She has recently been appointed as the acting chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, which is set to replace Public Health England.

When we scrutinise the interconnected web of wealth and privilege, it is hard to believe that these men and women who covet money and power really have our best interests at heart. While they sit there, gleefully counting their millions, the rest of us sit imprisoned in our homes or exhausted on the frontlines, wondering what our future may bring.

Update: 21st February 2021 - Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary has been found guilty in the High Court! He failed to declare how contracts were sourced and how public money was spent.

(c) Louize Small/One Little Warrior, January 2021.

*Not for reproduction without credit.

Cover photo courtesy of Nick Osborn.

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