How the government awarded contracts to private companies during the coronavirus pandemic, why it matters, and... will we ever know the truth?
First published in May 2021.
Test and Fail
On 30 April, Reuters reported that the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) had just announced that the NHS Test and Trace system was reducing the size of its contact tracing workforce “after a decline in coronavirus cases in the country.”
For the record, Test and Trace – that is employing over 50,000 people, of which 2,500 consultants receive an average daily rate of £1,000 and some even £6,624 a day – was expected to cost close to £22bn in April 2021 and a total of £37bn by April 2022. To compare, planned spending for DHSC in England is £159bn in 2021/22 (core funding).
According to a damning report by MPs in the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on COVID-19, Test and Trace, which is headed by Dido Harding (a Conservative life peer who also happens to be the wife of John David Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare), has “failed to deliver” and “made no difference to the pandemic”.
Meg Hillier, the Labour (Co-op) MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch and Committee chair, said, “Despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project, NHS Test and Trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic, and the promise on which this huge expense was justified – avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice.”
The Guardian has recently found out that many workers employed across Test and Trace “are being paid through networks of opaque small companies that experts fear could be defrauding the Treasury via a notorious tax scheme.”
The scheme, involving 30 outsourcing companies including Serco and G4S, the Guardian explains, “involves what are known as mini umbrella companies (MUC), often fronted by directors in the Philippines” and it “allows employers to dodge their national insurance contributions, and is estimated to cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions a year.”
This certainly raises concerns about the way the government has easily awarded contracts to private companies during the pandemic, as well as the lack of transparency and scrutiny.
Baroness Dido Harding. | Number 10
Inaccuracy is key
At the end of the year, the government decided to change focus and Gavin Williamson told schools they would have to test students in secondary schools twice a week with the new rapid Lateral Flow Tests (LFT) – that offer results in about 30 minutes – when they would reopen in March.
But many experts have argued that LFTs are not as accurate as the PCR tests. The Guardian explained that Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, had indeed argued that “LFTs are not fit for many of the purposes the UK government has in mind, mass testing in schools included. Because the tests miss so many infections, a negative test would not mean a teacher or pupil is virus-free. The danger is that teachers and pupils are falsely reassured and, thinking they are safe, put others at risk.”
Although the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the lateral flow devices to be used, the UK’s healthcare regulator told DHSC that its testing regime was “a stretch” of its authorisation for how the tests should be used and that they should not be used as a “green light” for people who test negative to be given false reassurance by the result and let down their guard to enjoy greater freedoms with the belief they are COVID-free.
So, why use LFT in the first place if they aren’t that accurate and if the regulator sees them as “blurring the lines” between what they should be used for (to find infectious people and get them to self-isolate) and what they end up being used for (to give people more freedom if they test negative)?
Let’s not even mention the fact that people are not properly supported financially to self-isolate and that, for that reason, fewer than one in five people get tested if they have symptoms.
Why spend billions in LFTs?
- Because positive media coverage matters
During the pandemic, as during the post-Brexit referendum period (2016-2019), ministers, MPs, and journalists prefer to see headlines and front pages that boost the morale of people – especially after lockdowns. The launch of self-tests to complement PCR testing offered a rich source of such positive media coverage.
- Because Conservative friends matter
On 15 March, DHSC announced that two companies had been awarded LFT contracts: Omega Diagnostics and Global Access Diagnostics “to provide manufacturing capacity for up to 200 million COVID-19 lateral flow antigen tests, which detect positive cases quickly – in under 30 minutes – meaning positive cases can isolate immediately, breaking chains of transmission.
“Omega and Global Access Diagnostics will have the capacity to produce approximately 2 million tests per week each by the end of May, helping scale up the government’s rapid lateral flow testing programme across the country.”
Peter Hargreaves, Ric Lewis, Christopher Mills and Colin Howell are shareholders of Omega Diagnostics (that got a contract worth £374m). They also, ‘coincidentally’, combined donations of £2.4m to the Conservatives according to Byline Times.
Also, certainly a ‘coincidence’, one of Global Access Diagnostics’s directors, Ali Siddiqui, has donated £8,000 to the Prime Minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, in 2017. The company got two contracts, total worth £1.155bn!
But why award companies for the making of millions of LFT devices at all?
In France, for example, LFTs – called autotests there – are available to purchase in pharmacies. A box of 5 tests costs 5 euros (£4.30). The French government is actually not involved in the purchase of the tests. Hospital networks contract manufacturers through a list of hundreds of suppliers. There is an open competition.
‘Autotests’ in France. | JNPMedia
Why has the UK Government decided to contract manufacturers directly instead? Is it because the Conservatives wanted to be the nicest people on Earth and offer free tests to everyone? Do you still believe in Santa Claus?
Is it genuinely to create “around 470 additional jobs in total, in Alva in Scotland, Thurleigh in Bedfordshire, and more widely across the production line and wider UK supply chain”? No. Until Omega Diagnostics and Global Access Diagnostics, the Department of Health and Social Care has only contracted foreign companies.
Has the UK Government deliberately decided to favour companies with links to the Conservative Party, and award them contracts to make sure they face no competition at all? (No company can therefore compete with free LFTs in the UK.)
- Because nothing matters
What if the government has simply been splashing the cash... because it could? Would that be surprising with a government that seems to be accountable to no one?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Department of Health and Social Care awarded many companies the supply of LFTs, such as Abingdon Health Limited (14 Aug 2020: £75m), Innova Medical Group Inc (2 Jun 2020: £10.2m & again 6 Oct 2020: £496m & again 24 Dec 2020: £152.4m & again 18 Feb 2021: £136.7m & again 26 Feb 2021: £136.8m), Tanner Pharma (19 Feb 2021: £34.3m & again 26 Feb 2021: £91.5m), Omega Diagnostics Limited (11 Feb 2021: £374m) and Global Access Diagnostics (8 Dec 2020: £3.1m & 15 Feb 2021: £1.152bn).
Note that the two companies with an identified link with the Conservatives, Omega Diagnostics and Global Access Diagnostics, were awarded two of the biggest contracts.
In all, so far, DHSC has spent at least £2.6bn of taxpayers money in Lateral Flow Tests.
The UK Government has spent months without any idea on how to stop COVID-19 — even considering Herd Immunity at some point, or without planning for further waves of the virus and its variants. Instead, it spent billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to get positive media coverage (to win elections!), to help their friends, and because they don’t care about transparency.
PM Boris Johnson. | UK Parliament
The truth... one day?
Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday that an independent inquiry was going to commence by the end of the new parliamentary session and have “the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public, under oath.”
The general public, and the COVID-19 bereaved families in particular, will surely be interested to find out more about the way the government awarded contracts to some private companies during the pandemic...
Will we ever know the truth? Sadly, transparency and scrutiny are words apparently foreign to our Brexit government.
“When scrutiny is lacking, tyranny, corruption and man's baser qualities have a better chance of entering into the public business of any government.” — Jacob Javits.
Note: Downing Street later confirmed that the inquiry process would start no earlier than spring 2022.
- Britain’s NHS Test and Trace reducing size of contact tracing workforce | Reuters
- House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Covid-19: Test, track, and trace (part 1). 10 March 2021 | Parliament UK
- Covid-19: how accurate are lateral flow tests? | The Guardian
- UK health regulator concerned over use of rapid coronavirus tests | The Guardian
- Covid-19: How the UK is using lateral flow tests in the pandemic | the bmj
- The Department of Health and Social Care’s budget | The King’s Fund
- Claims of 99% accuracy for UK Covid antibody test ‘cannot be trusted’ | The Guardian
- Californian firm 'is getting £2.8BILLION to supply UK lateral flow Covid tests ahead of plan to offer kits to EVERYONE twice-a-week | Daily Mail
▫ J.N. PAQUET, Author & Journalist, Editor of PMP Magazine.
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[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 12 May 2021. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - Prime Minister Boris Johnson. | 20 April 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)