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Editorial Serco's secrets: how the pursuit of profit is wrecking our response to Covid-19

Serco's leaked admission that its track-and-trace work will 'cement the role of the private sector' in the NHS throws down the gauntlet to the left

THE right never wastes a crisis. The leaked email from Serco chief executive Rupert Soames exposes the ruthless cynicism with which the Tories are risking our lives in pursuit of their goals.

Those responsible for delivering the track-and-trace app don’t expect it to be fully operational for “three to four months.” Yet a functional track-and-trace system is a prerequisite for relaxing lockdown – without one, authorities cannot hope to identify and isolate Covid-19 outbreaks.

This blows apart the assurances the government has given that Britain – already, according to an analysis by the Financial Times, the country with the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world, at 891 per million – is adequately prepared to ease lockdown restrictions without risking another spike in infections and deaths.

From the start the government has failed to prioritise protecting the public. Its late, patchy lockdown came weeks after ministers had been made aware by China and the World Health Organisation of the scale of the problem. Those weeks were not used to prepare. 

When coronavirus cases began to multiply front-line workers were still being denied the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed to work safely. The price has been paid in mounting deaths among NHS workers but also among transport workers and cleaners, and in the unfolding tragedy that hit so many of our care homes. 

Management in both the public and private sectors has fallen short when it comes to adapting workplaces to maximise safety, including in enforcing the government’s own social-distancing guidelines. More often than not it has been trade unions and their reps on the ground who have kept staff safe. 

Nor has the government anything like an accurate picture of the spread of coronavirus among the millions of workers who have continued to go into the workplace throughout lockdown, because of its failure to conduct enough tests or properly prioritise tests for key workers.

We know – because an excellent report by We Own It and the University of Greenwich has demonstrated it – that the PPE shortage that forced so many NHS staff to risk their lives is a direct result of the chaotic impact of privatisation on NHS supply chains, with as many as four different junctures for the private sector to cream off profit between the commissioning of equipment and its arrival.

And now Soames’s email reveals that Serco was well aware that its contribution to track-and-trace would not go “smoothly” but recognised its importance to “cement the position of private-sector companies in the public-sector supply chain.”

When it comes to a project whose entire purpose is to stop a second wave of a lethal virus that is killing tens of thousands of people, not going “smoothly” equates directly to more people dying.

The inevitable consequence of rolling out a rough-and-ready solution to a rapidly evolving crisis? No, because the government declined expert assistance from the likes of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in order to give the job to Serco, a company notorious for ripping off and actually convicted of defrauding the taxpayer. 

Why? To “cement the position of the private sector.”

MPs who detect an ideological motive behind their opponents’ policies sometimes accuse them of “playing politics.” The assumption being that there is neutral ground on which policies are pursued on a “what works” basis.

The reality is that the decisions that shape our public services are deeply political and the left needs to be as clear-eyed as the right in recognising that. 

The role of the private sector in delivering NHS services is a serious problem. It is responsible for failings that are killing people and will keep doing so. 

The Tories are using this crisis. So must the left. Driving the profiteers out of our health service is a cause that can unite the overwhelming majority against this reckless, dangerous government.

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