Incompetence, Cronyism and COVID-19

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 28 2020
Columns Incompetence, Cronyism and COVID-19

By Michael Gregson

A palpable air of alarm has replaced COVID-19 fatigue in Colombo. A week or two ago people were complacent, leaving their masks at home and ignoring social distancing. That has all changed following new clusters of the disease suddenly springing up. The streets are empty and traffic flows freely.

Sri Lanka has received a wake-up call. Whatever mistakes or missteps there were, it’s worth remembering that the island has an enviable record fighting the disease and only a tiny number of cases and deaths compared to supposedly advanced economies like the UK – where the response to COVID-19 has been marked by staggering incompetence, political cronyism and widespread corruption. 

Weekly stories of huge sums of public money spent with seeming disregard for value, without tender or transparency, for services of dubious value or poor quality, to companies and consultants which often have close links to power in Britain.

The bill for private consultants on COVID-19 related projects is approaching £200 million, causing Meg Hillier, the chairwoman of the public accounts committee, to explode: “What on earth are they doing?”

The smell worsens around the test and trace system, run by the McKinsey alumna Dido Harding. Her old company pocketed £560,000 for deciding on the “vision, purpose and narrative” of the programme. 

More than 1,100 consultants from Deloitte are now working on test and trace, while executives at Boston Consulting Group are being paid as much as £6,250 a day for their input. Beyond the consultants, companies such as Serco, Sitel, G4S and Mitie provide the call handlers, organise testing sites, dispatch tests and so on, pushing the total cost of the system up to £12 billion. This is a vast sum – representing around a fifth of Sri Lanka’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). It might be value for money if the system worked, but it doesn’t. 

Even Boris Johnson now admits it is failing. In October, contact-tracing fell to new low and waiting times for test results soared to almost double the target. 

Under pressure to explain new figures showing less than 60 per cent of close contacts being reached, while test turnaround times rose to nearly 48 hours, the Prime Minister said: “I share people’s frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times and we need to improve it.”

Senior members of the Prime Minister’s ruling Conservative Party are running out of patience with test and trace and it’s beleaguered boss – who has earned the nickname Dido ‘Hiding’ for disappearing from public view as her empire crashes and burns, taking billions of pounds and thousands of lives with it. 

Sir Bernard Jenkin, chair of the powerful Parliamentary liaison committee, called for her to be given a “well-earned rest” and moved on to focus on “lessons learned”. He warned of a “vacuum of leadership in test and trace, which is destroying public confidence and compliance”.

Opposition Labour MP Dan Carden claimed the ‘cronyism’ of the test and trace scheme is well documented. “Conservative Baroness and business executive Baroness Harding appointed as the head of test and trace, Serco’s CEO the brother of a former Tory MP and Tory MPs on the boards of companies winning contracts. And if you’ve got a problem with any of this, well why not take it up with the Government’s anti-corruption champion – Dido Harding’s husband and a Tory MP. The whole thing stinks.”

It’s a vicious circle: cut back on public-sector expertise and you rely more on expensive outsiders; rely more on outsiders and the public sector can ‘safely’ be shrunk further. As the UK Cabinet Office Minister Lord Agnew wrote last month in a leaked letter to senior civil servants, an ‘unacceptable’ reliance on management consultants has ‘infantilised’ the civil service and deprived “our brightest public servants of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”. 

Some might argue that there is a place for private companies like Serco and G4S to help with the delivery of public services. But surely outsourcing and the profiteering that can go with it should not be the default for a well-resourced, modern state? 

Profit must never be put before lives. Boris Johnson needs to be reminded of this or have  his Premiership forever tainted with the stench of corruption. 

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 28 2020

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