At Prime Minister’s Questions on the 9th September 2020 Keir Starmer grilled Boris Johnson about problems with the coronavirus testing system, which had become so dysfunctional members of the public were being offered their “nearest test” hundreds of miles away.
Johnson used the phrase “NHS Test and Trace” no less than ten times in his responses and accused Starmer of “attacks on NHS test and trace”.
The Establishment media were apparently convinced by the PM’s bombast:
NHS coronavirus test and trace ‘shambolic, frustrating, unfit for purpose’, 119 call handler tells ITV News was the headline of an ITV piece that day.
Is NHS test-and-trace reaching 80% of contacts? asked the BBC on 11th September.
‘Utter shambles’: GPs and medics decry NHS test-and-trace system lamented The Guardian.
Note that all three headlines refer to “NHS test and trace”. None of the articles, all of which explore concerns about the test and trace scheme in reasonable depth, mention the word “Serco”.
Why do we?
Well…Serco, in collaboration with other outsourcing companies like Sitel, receive the majority of funding for the test and trace system. “Serco was initially contracted for £108 million for fourteen weeks from the contract start date up to the 23rd August,” Open Democracy report, “with the option to extend for a longer period up to a value of £410 million in total” – and similar amounts slated for Sitel.
In contrast, Private Eye (issues 1525 and 1528) report that Public Health England and local authorities have “only received a £300 million payment from the Department of Health to support their contract tracing work.”
Despite this imbalance of funding (and the fact that Serco/Sitel only deal with “non-complex” cases) “just 12.3% of tracing has been performed by the Serco set-up”. This means, Private Eye summarise, that “public health officials…are working out to be 50 times more productive on the government’s numbers.”
This should come as no surprise. Serco have a history of incompetence – indeed, outright fraudulence – when it comes to handling public contracts. In 2019 the company were fined £19.2m for fraud and false accounting over an electronic tagging service “outsourced” to them by the Ministry of Justice – this on top of £70 million compensation they paid at an earlier date.
Outsourcers also outsource and Politics Home have revealed that Concentrix, “the US company behind a major tax credits debacle, are among those who have been handed (test and trace) contracts by Serco”.
The tax credits debacle in question saw Concentrix, while completing outsourcing work for HMRC, mistakenly reduce or halt benefits payments to some of the most vulnerable in society.
Why would the Conservatives, faced with the worst public health crisis in decades, entrust such a vital service to firms with a poor track record and no health background?
The neoliberal commitment to privatisation and dismantling the public sector is an obvious answer. Indeed, Serco’s chief executive Rupert Soames highlighted to staff the key role the test and trace contract could play in “cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain”.
Rupert Soames, we should mention, is the grandson of Winston Churchill and the brother of Nicholas Soames – a Tory MP until last year. Current Tory health minister Edward Argar used to work as a lobbyist for Serco and, according to Open Democracy, the company “sponsored an event at last year’s Conservative Party conference”.
At what point does commitment to privatisation (i.e. government ministers handing public money to private bodies) become outright cronyism?
Enter Dido Harding, appointed the chair of “NHS Test and Trace”.
Like Serco, Harding has a history of failure. While she was in charge at Talk Talk the company suffered a cyberattack that resulted in the theft of 150,000 customer details. The hack cost the “company £60 million and lost it 95,000 customers” and Harding was widely condemned for her handling of the crisis.
However, Harding’s connections are strong. She is married to Conservative MP John Penrose (who, purely coincidentally, we’re sure, has links to the 1828 think-tank who’ve argued for NHS privatisation…), was appointed to the House of Lords by David Cameron and is on the board at the illustrious Jockey Club. Even The Telegraph have described her rise as “chumocracy at work” – and the public are paying the cost.
The last week of September saw a resurgence of the virus, local lockdowns and economic damage…but Serco are in rude health. They recently declared a “53% rise in half-year trading profits” according to a Sky News story that reads like a press release – “The debate over NHS Test & Trace should not distract from the progress this company (Serco) is making”.
There it is again…NHS Test and Trace. What prevents journalists seeing – or reporting – the kind of scandal it should be their very raison d’être to expose?
After all, journalists love to crow about their pursuit of truth and willingness to stand up to power. ITV’s political editor Robert Peston has described impartial journalism as ““weighing the evidence and saying on the balance of probabilities … this is the truth.”
Ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote a passionate defence of journalism in which he noted the “need for an institution, an estate, a profession, a trade…that exists independently of the other main centres of power in society.”
Therein lies the rub. Does a Sky News journalist, working for a company shaped by Rupert Murdoch and answerable to advertisers, exist independently of other sources of power? Peston’s ITV and the Guardian are equally reliant on advertising revenue from big businesses, while the BBC are accountable to the government and face constant flak from right-wing think-tanks funded by wealth.
So much for independence – and so much for the truth. None of the four articles on “NHS Test and Trace” highlighted in this piece informed their readers that the government have contracted out their wellbeing to private companies owned by their friends/donors, often without tender, and irrespective of past failures.
In fact, by inanely parroting “NHS Test and Trace” these outlets have collaborated in blaming private failures on the public sector – a narrative billionaire press owners and big businesses are only too happy for the public to swallow. How else can they continue to enjoy their slice of the privatisation pie?
We do not have a “free press” we have an “owned press” – and corporate journalists are the lapdogs of power kidding themselves they’re independent because they never strain against their leashes. How else to explain their sudden word blindness when “Serco” should be exploding in their vision?