Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:36 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health Team Member) 5:36 pm, 11th November 2020

I do not dispute the role of private companies in meeting the challenge of the coronavirus. I will go on to discuss the transparency and the appropriateness of how contracts have been awarded by this Government during the pandemic.

We only have to look at the PPE fiasco to see how this has been brazenly put into action, with large contracts awarded to small firms with little to no experience in the relevant field but with numerous links to the Conservative party. How on earth did the Government find them? In what amounts to a covid bonanza for these tiny companies, Government contracts worth more than £10 billion have been awarded in this way since March. Under the cover of the pandemic, the standard rules have been put aside, enabling contracts to be issued in extreme urgency with little to no oversight; I refer to the comments made by Dr Fox about scrutiny.

With the emergence of promising vaccine candidates, we collectively hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, the darkness of our journey through this pandemic must not be allowed to obscure our important public duty to act in good faith and with financial probity. We simply cannot emerge from this experience with the dismissive “at any cost” excuse deployed from the top of this Government down. We must ensure that the burden is shared equally together.

Enormous amounts of public money have been dished out in the absence of any tendering process, value for money assessment or assessment of whether any of these companies have relevant experience. We have all heard stories of UK businesses with expertise whose offers of help went unanswered by this Government. Why? On PPE, £108 million went to a tiny pest control company with net assets of £18,000. Another £108 million went to a modestly sized confectioner in Northern Ireland, while a third contract worth £252 million was awarded to an opaque private fund owned through a tax haven. The more that Members and external interested parties scratch the surface of this Government’s contract profligacy, the more serious are the questions that arise.

It is not just PPE. Under the fast-track rules, private firms have been handed a total of 843 direct contracts, including those that administer covid-19 tests and provide food parcels and medical supplies. Then, of course, there is the disastrous £12 billion test and trace failure, led by Conservative peer Baroness Harding. In yesterday’s joint Select Committee hearing, a possible reason for that was revealed. In July, the CMO claimed in a Select Committee that the ability to ramp up testing was “significantly strained”. Yesterday, Professor Sir Chris Ham gave evidence that increasing capacity over the crucial summer months was too slow, yet Baroness Harding claimed that testing capacity was increasing throughout the summer. What is the truth of the matter? Unfortunately, that was not the only incongruity, as Baroness Harding did not show a clear command of her brief, failing to answer or, in some cases, understand what was being asked.

The global pandemic is an absolute disaster for so many, with an unimaginable loss of life, yet the brightest and best of humanity have been working tirelessly on effective treatments and a vaccine. Rightly or wrongly, the appointment of Kate Bingham has proven controversial. There are no doubt questions to be asked about the absence of any clear recruitment process, but when she appeared before the Health and Social Care Committee recently, she was impressive. She was clearly on top of and in command of her brief.

However, that does not vacate the responsibility of this Government and any appointees to act ethically and in good faith and, most importantly, to account transparently for their actions. There are concerns about Kate Bingham’s astronomical public relations bill and claims that she shared sensitive information with investors. Further concerns emerged in The Guardian yesterday—in simple terms, how can a job be considered unpaid when the postholder has a position of influence or control in the process of awarding a £49 million investment in a company in which they remain a managing partner and from which they will surely benefit? Whatever the Prime Minister’s bluster, these matters must be fully scrutinised.

Sad as the pandemic is, what saddens the most is that these conditions are seen by some as an opportunity for Governments and corporate interests to implement political agendas that would otherwise be met with great resistance and opposition. The Government are on notice that, despite the disorientation of the public health crisis we are living through, these matters are being pursued.

This chain of events is not unique to the current crisis; it is a blueprint that neo-liberal politicians and Governments have been following for decades. Many thought that the meltdown of the global financial system in 2008 would prompt a comprehensive rethink of the principles underlying global capitalism, but in reality it was exploited to implement austerity and defund public services and social welfare provision on a grand scale. Covid illustrated that no more keenly than in respect of social care.

The 2018 report on social care from the other place pointed to a gap in service for 1.4 million people. This year, the Independent Care Group suggested that 1.5 million people are already living without the care that they need. The number keeps growing. One and a half million vulnerable and elderly people throughout England—husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters; each and every one deserves much better from their Government. The Government are presiding over a social care system that is close to collapse.

Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the national health service, told the BBC that the covid-19 crisis had shone “a very harsh spotlight” on the “resilience” of the care system. The truth is that it comes down to priorities and political choices. To reform social care to pre-austerity levels will now cost more than £14 billion. That is a large sum, but it is £9 billion less than the bank bail-outs of 2007-08, which cost the public purse £23 billion overall. The annual operating costs of Trident nuclear weapons come in at £2 billion—far short of the £14 billion we need to repair the economic vandalism of austerity but, according to the costs worked out by Skills for Care, enough to recruit and train almost 550,000 new social careworkers every single year.

According to Age UK, 167,000 older people and their families throughout England now have to fund their own care because of the means test for free or subsidised support. Older people who are obliged to buy their own care have spent more than £7 billion in the 12 months since the Prime Minister took office and promised to fix social care. Every single day in England, 14 people exhaust their assets paying for care.

The reality is that the social care system that entered the pandemic was underfunded, understaffed, undervalued and at risk of collapse. Any response to covid-19, however fast or comprehensive, would have needed to contend with this legacy of political neglect. Government policies to support social care have faced major and widespread problems, not least the PPE crisis, which has led to a lack of protection for some people using and providing adult social care. Local authorities report that additional Government funding has been insufficient to cover the additional costs.

As has become all too clear throughout the recent crisis in England, protecting social care has been given far too low a priority. When the Minister for Care appeared before front of the Health and Social Care Committee last month, despite admitting that

“the social care system needs fixing” and making a commitment to do so, she was unwilling to give any date for when the disinvestment of austerity would be rectified. If not now, when?

The UK Government do not even need to look far for inspiration: although challenges remain, they could learn much from Scotland’s approach. The story north and south of the border is very different, as is evident in our approaches to social care post covid. The Scottish Government have established an independent review to look at the creation of a national care service for all. As the Nuffield Trust points out, Scotland’s reforms are

“the most advanced of the countries…having set out an ambitious and comprehensive vision for a social care service.”

Because free personal care has been in place in Scotland since 2002, two thirds of those receiving social care support in Scotland do so in their own homes.

A further lesson from Scotland is the introduction of Frank’s law in April 2019. Under this legislation, free personal care was extended to all adults. Despite all these significant advances being made in Scotland, the system continues to struggle because we are part of the UK. Let us take funding, for example. The simple truth is that, without independence, we are limited in our funding options. Hoping for Barnett consequentials anytime soon seems unlikely, given the UK Government’s timidity towards social care reform in England. Then there is Brexit. While the Government celebrate the end of freedom of movement, the loss of its opportunities is lamented in Scotland. The Migration Advisory Committee is entirely right that this poses a stark risk for social care, given that the services are dependent on EU nationals. UK policy delivers to Scotland a triple threat: a lack of reform to tackle the many pre-existing issues; the Government’s irrational and ideological approach to the EU; and an immigration policy that refuses to acknowledge, never mind accommodate, the specific needs of Scotland.

I had a fleeting hope in March that covid would raise this Government’s eyes to injustice and the value of those in healthcare. I felt sure that honouring all the heroes in our NHS and care sector would naturally follow, but no. With the weekly clapping now a distant memory, many do not feel valued or do not feel that their efforts are properly recognised. Campaigners are calling on Ministers to boost nurses’ pay without delay. The Scottish Government are currently delivering the highest pay award in the UK for NHS Agenda for Change staff of at least 9% over the three years from 2019. They also gave an immediate 3.3% pay rise to social care workers and have just announced £50 million for the social care staff support fund for those who contract covid-19.

This Government sprang into action to approve countless contracts for their wealthy friends at the start of the pandemic, but that sense of urgency is sadly lacking when it comes to taking action on nurses’ pay or addressing the poverty of carers. The Prime Minister demonstrated yet again today that his ears are made of cloth. He ignores repeated calls for the £20 uplift to universal credit to be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits, which is backed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children, and he defended his Government’s refusal to feed children in poverty during the summer holidays, yet brags about Marcus Rashford’s campaign this winter. It was support grudgingly given through shame.

We are seeing a return to the lack of compassion of the 1980s, but what we are witnessing now casts minds back further still, not just to the Thatcher years but to Dickensian Britain where great wealth and extreme poverty existed cheek by jowl, conjuring images of barefoot children with empty bowls and a population without access to medical or social care. This is the stark reality of Tory Britain: poverty, a pay-to-access suboptimal social care system, an assault on employment and working conditions, and the exclusion of the self-employed. Coronavirus must not be allowed to cover for the crony virus at the heart of this Government. Some say that Scotland gets too generous a settlement, but that is a false narrative. These policies exist in Scotland because—