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THE Conservatives’ main response to the coronavirus crisis has been handing out contracts to their favoured corporations: instead of strengthening the NHS and other public health authorities that are our best defence against infection, the government is increasing privatisation.
What qualifies these corporations to get public cash to fight the pandemic above the NHS or local authorities? If you look at one firm, Mitie, the two main qualifications seem to be employing Tory insiders and a record of dirty, badly run services.
Mitie are one of the contractors getting coronavirus work: the key to controlling coronavirus is a “test and trace” system, with widespread testing to find those — possibly unknowingly — infected with coronavirus, and then tracing all their contacts to stop the disease spreading.
First the government were late to develop this. Then they decided to do it through a “car park and call centre” approach: other nations have successful test and trace regimes run by local health officials. Our government has turned to our big generic privatisers.
Mitie run the facilities at five of the drive-through test centres, in what their “chief government officer” called “a perfect example of a seamless collaboration between the public and private sector.”
In fact these drive-through facilities have not worked “seamlessly” with public authorities, as test data from the centres has often not been properly passed to the NHS or local authorities.
By focussing on these drive-through centres with their out-of-town locations, the government has tried to bulk up testing numbers (not very successfully) without focusing testing on areas of need: Care home residents can’t go to drive-through test centres, for example.
Mitie winning some privatised coronavirus work follows their general reliance on public-sector cash: Mitie say they “are the UK’s leading facilities management and professional services company.” Their latest annual report says they get £700m from government work — about 32 per cent of their annual income.
They get big money from the government and have strong political links. Baroness Couttie sits on Mitie’s board: David Cameron made Couttie a Tory lord in 2017, after years of party service: Couttie, aka Philippa Roe, was Tory leader of Westminster Council from 2012-2017.
She also helped design the Private Finance Initiative for the Tories in the 1990s and advised Cameron on “public-sector efficiency” in the 2000s. Mitie boasts Couttie is a Conservative whip in the Lords. This looks very much like “crony capitalism.”
Mitie claims it gets public contracts because of its “outstanding service.” But inspection reports don’t sound excellent.
Mitie also runs Immigration detention centres, where the most recent inspection reports said they ran dirty facilities with poor record keeping and a medical failure — very definitely not good recommendations for running a coronavirus testing site.
Last April the Prisons Inspectorate reported on an unannounced visit to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, a detention site next to Heathrow holding 240 migrants. Mitie has run Colnbrook since 2014.
Inspectors found “the accommodation was in a generally grubby condition” as the “standard of repair and hygiene in the residential units was inadequate with dust and ingrained dirt throughout.” Some showers “were not working” and “some toilets were filthy.” There were also problems with records: Mitie did not have up-to-date records about which inmates were at-risk, and only knew about half the inmates with recorded vulnerabilities.
The problem lay with communications between the Home Office and Mitie: the Home Office might be partly to blame but “poor recent attendance by Mitie staff” at case meetings did not help. Mitie staff did treat inmates with respect, but the overall atmosphere was “too prison-like” where “detainees spent long periods unnecessarily locked in rooms.” Inspectors actually downgraded Mitie’s Colnbrook on their “healthy establishment test,” marking it down from “reasonably good” to “not sufficiently good.”
In 2016 inspectors made 14 recommendations on safety. By 2019 they found eight had not been achieved at all and two only “partly achieved.”
Mitie have also run the 250-bed Campsfield House immigration detention centre in Oxfordshire since 2011. The most recent inspection, also for 2019, found “some areas, including stairwells, had ingrained dirt and damaged plaster, requiring a deep clean and redecoration” while “rooms in general looked shabby and needed redecoration, with variable standards of cleanliness” and missing, broken or “dilapidated” furniture.
Mitie also runs short-term immigration holding facilities for the UK Home Office in France, by the Eurotunnel and Calais. The latest inspection of these “France short-term holding facilities” published this March says these new facilities are in a “good decorative state, and clean and tidy” but there were still “no showers, adequate sleeping facilities or natural light and fresh air.”
Staff also “complained that a drain in the centre of the family room often became blocked leading to a backflow of sewage and human waste.” Inspectors also found Mitie breaching “child safeguarding policy” as “we met a 17-year-old boy with an old gunshot injury who had been detained from a lorry and appeared unwell.” Neither Border Force nor Mitie staff “called for medical attention.”
By reaching out to Mitie to help with coronavirus testing, the government is using a familiar friend, but it isn’t obvious what they see in them.
Mitie don’t only have problems with cleanliness and care in the immigration detention centres. Hospital cleaning and portering staff organised by the GMB have had several conflicts with Mitie over pay and conditions: GMB members have had to fight Mitie over, for example, cuts to cleaning hours in St George’s Hospital in London in 2019. This March GMB members had to push Mitie for proper PPE to protect from coronavirus at Epsom and St Helier hospital.
At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, many people said the crucial role of the NHS and other public services would stop the Tories’ privatisation plans. This was a hopeful, but naive view: they are in fact increasing privatisation by handing more contracts to firms like Mitie, Serco and Sodexo. If we want them to stop doing this, we need to use organisation and pressure as well as hope.
Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.
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