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THE announcement of the formation of a UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on March 24, the same day that Boris Johnson told the nation that an inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic would be an “irresponsible diversion,” poses a number of problems.
When Public Health England was abolished, the government stated that its successor would be focused on a “local first” public health response — local councils and directors of public health would be involved. In fact this approach has been dropped in favour of a privatised and centralised approach.
The government has stated that a core function of UKHSA will be “driving economic growth” and in particular, acting “as an engine” for the private diagnostics industries and life sciences. This is a clear signal of private profit being put first.
It is also clear that the long-term Conservative strategy of privatising the NHS through a smoke and mirrors strategy of calling privately owned and run concerns like “test and trace” NHS initiatives has been accelerated.
This has even extended to giving the hapless boss of Serco, Dido Harding, the title of NHS director and the further embarrassment of her appearance in front of parliamentary committees.
The UK Parliament public accounts committee has been particularly scathing about the performance of the privatised test and trace fiasco, pointing out that it has made no significant difference to the deadly progress of the pandemic.
Significantly the acceleration of privatisation regarding the NHS has been aided further by the abandonment of normal tendering and contracting procedures by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, as funding on an infamous scale has been passed to friends, Conservative contacts and, apparently, the landlord of his local pub.
A court decision judging that this action was illegal has been shrugged off by Hancock in a blase manner. He seems to have belatedly realised it was a public health emergency and retrospectively used this as an excuse.
An April 1 editorial in the British Medical Journal summed up the problem quite neatly: “It is likely that the creation of UKHSA will be seen by many as a further step in the growth of a centralised and secretive state apparatus with the close engagement of private-sector interests.” Indeed.
It has been very noticeable that although health is a devolved function, there is little to distinguish the responses to the pandemic seen in the four parts of the UK, in the words of the BMA.
To take one example, the Scottish FM has moved slowly from meekly accepting the timing and measures of the Johnson government in their totality in the first phase of the pandemic, to manufacturing largely cosmetic differences in later phases.
The most notable difference was to go for complete monitored hotel quarantining for all flying into Scotland a year after the pandemic began but then allowing those who flew into English airports and transferred back home to stay at home.
It is instructive that this remarkable lack of independence from the SNP seems to be evident in regard to UKHSA. Not a word has been uttered by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon or Health Secretary Jeanne Freeman in this matter even though this new body threatens to override Scotland’s public health on crucial issues, indicative of a worrying embrace of neoliberalism north of the border. Not that the Tory-lite Labour “opposition” led by Keir Starmer and his health spokesman, Jonathan Ashworth, has been any more vocal.
Anas Sarwar, the new Scottish Labour leader, has earned deserved praise for highlighting the failures of the SNP government on health, protecting the population from cancer and the plight of a Scottish cancer patient who had to be transferred to London for treatment. Perhaps his new health spokesperson could respond to the creation of UKHSA? Jackie Baillie take note.
It is difficult not to conclude that there is an unfortunate irony in the Conservative leader describing the calls for an inquiry into the actions and behaviour of his government during the pandemic an irresponsible diversion, while rushing through a profoundly flawed and dangerous restructuring of the public health system without consultation or discussion.
This is surely the real distraction on a day when a key organisation catalysing the further privatisation of the NHS was formed.
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