THE new National Institute for Health Protection announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock is not the result of any attempt to learn from previous mistakes in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, whatever ministers say.
It is a cynical bid to further entangle our health service with the private sector and maintains an outsourcing model that is deeply implicated in Britain’s extraordinarily high death toll from coronavirus — the highest in Europe and one of the highest anywhere on Earth.
The body consists of a merger of Public Health England with NHS Test and Trace — an already outsourced service containing “many players with a commercial interest who have already demonstrated their incompetence,” in the words of Doctors for the NHS chair and retired consultant ophthalmic surgeon Colin Hutchinson.
Britain’s test-and-trace system has been a shambles from the outset.
It wasted millions on an app which it later effectively abandoned. It ignored existing local experts to hand lucrative test-and-trace contracts to private-sector companies with no relevant expertise, most prominently Serco, which has been fined repeatedly for misbehaviour or poor performance on previous government contracts, including for defrauding the taxpayer by charging the state to tag prisoners who turned out to be deceased and for dumping asylum-seekers in “squalid, unsafe, slum housing conditions.”
It has been embroiled in data breaches, attacked for providing inadequate training to staff and has a poor record of sharing information with the local public services that need it.
Small wonder when NHS Test and Trace has been headed by Baroness Diana “Dido” Harding, whose qualifications, as brilliantly related by the Morning Star’s own Peter Frost earlier this month, are a mixture of the personal and the ideological — but not the professional.
Hancock defends Baroness Harding’s elevation to head the new merged organisation on the grounds that she combines experience in the NHS — that is, her stewardship of the test-and-trace shambles — with running large private-sector corporations.
Such is the ideological grip of the market on leading Tories that the Health Secretary doesn’t see the need to explain why corporate experience is a requirement, but in any case Harding’s was not “world-beating,” consisting of running mobile phone giant TalkTalk when it lost millions of customers’ personal and banking data, earning it a hefty fine and losing more than 100,000 customers.
Her other recommendations are being married to a Tory MP who sits on the advisory board of a think tank, 1828, that calls for the replacement of the NHS by a system of private health insurance; and herself sitting on the board of the Jockey Club, which went ahead with the Cheltenham horse-racing festival in mid-March – and lobbied the government to let it do so – despite fears, later borne out, that the gathering would prove a “super-spreader” accelerating the transmission of Covid-19.
The think tank 1828 has called for Public Health England to be axed. Its board member John Penrose MP must be pleased that it has at least been folded into an outsourced NHS service headed by his wife.
Galling as it is that a coterie of grasping incompetents is being placed in charge of Britain’s Covid-19 response, the more serious implications are for the integrity of the NHS as a public service.
This is already deeply compromised. Campaign group We Own It has exposed in devastating detail the role privatisation of NHS Supply Chain played in crippling the health service’s ability to provide front-line workers with the protective equipment they needed. Unions including GMB and Unison have revealed the risk to public health caused by outsourcing hospital cleaning.
The whole of the left must press for the elimination of private-sector providers from our health service. The parasites have already seriously weakened the host — and the cost is being paid in the lives of patients and staff.
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