“a gross insult to donkeys”

The COVID Chumocracy
Sam Bright, Byline Times, Sep 22 2020

Johnson’s first Cabinet meeting at Downing Street. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA

“There are two things about this virus that are counter-intuitive to a layman like me.” These were the words of the Government’s Test-and-Trace tsar Dido Harding to Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee last Thursday, just moments after she got the day of the week wrong. “Today is only Wednesday I believe,” she told the chair, Greg Clark MP, while trying to convince the committee that the UK’s testing system isn’t spontaneously combusting. Harding, who professes to be a “layman” on matters portending to COVID-19, is the head of Test-and-Trace and interim chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection, responsible for ensuring an effective Government response to infectious diseases. When pressed by Labour MP Graham Stringer on how she managed to acquire the latter role, one of the most prestigious health positions in the country, Harding explained that she had been asked to serve by Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock. There had been no open recruitment process. Harding is seen as a friend of the Government; someone who won’t divert from the Dominic Cummings masterplan. But her credentials in the field of health-care are weak. Her first and only role in this sector has been, since 2017, the chair of NHS Improvement, responsible for overseeing NHS trusts and independent providers of NHS-funded care.

Harding’s background is actually in retail. From 2010 to 2017, she worked as the CEO of telecoms firm TalkTalk, during which time the company suffered a cyber-attack that cost £60m and 101k customers. In 2015, the year the cyber-attack occurred, Harding took home a salary of £2.81m, a £1.05m increase from the year before. Harding also currently holds a board position at the Jockey Club, a horse-racing organisation that has given gifts to Hancock. Indeed, Harding is no stranger to politics, having been ennobled by former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014. Her husband, John Penrose, is a Conservative MP. Having arguably been appointed on the basis of who she knows, rather than what she knows, Harding is now overseeing a crisis in the UK’s Coronavirus testing regime. Byline Times reported in late August that testing turnaround times were in free-fall. The system has now effectively crashed, with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of tests as labs struggle to cope. All the while, Harding claims that no-one anticipated a rise in demand for tests during September, the month that kids went back to school, their parents were ordered back to the office, and huge discounts where given to hungry, sociable diners.

Harding’s appointment demonstrates a fallacy about Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign. It was never against experts or civil servants per se: it just wanted its experts and civil servants, to be in charge; the ones who would follow the party line, rather than science and evidence. This is evident throughout Government. Rishi Sunak, popular though he is, is arguably only Chancellor because he was willing to have his views dictated by Cummings, whereas his predecessor Sajid Javid resigned at the prospect. Even Matt Hancock only reached the upper echelons of Westminster because he won the patronage of former Chancellor George Osborne, working for Cameron’s number two as his chief of staff. Others, such as the Home Secretary Priti Patel, Attorney General Suella Braverman, Cabinet Office Minister Gove and perpetually terrified Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, were all promoted as faithful allies of Vote Leave. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Transport chief Grant Shapps and Business Secretary Alok Sharma were surely only appointed to the top table because they will never rebel, so grateful are they to Johnson for hoisting them out of political irrelevance.

This jobs-for-the-boys mentality has underpinned the colossal recruiting and outsourcing campaign that has taken place during the Coronavirus crisis. Take for example the PPE procurement contracts awarded to Conservative Party backers, amounting to at least £364m, according to investigations by Byline Times. The Test-and-Trace operation has been outsourced to Serco, a firm run by Rupert Soames, the old Etonian grandson of Winston Churchill. It and other corporate beneficiaries such as Deloitte, KPMG and G4S already have pre-existing, ingrained relationships with the Government. Over recent years, these firms seem to have become an external arm of the Government, running public services it can’t or won’t. The firms in question have to be large enough to handle the scope of work, which precludes the vast majority of prospective competitors, and once they win one contract, they carry the advantage of ‘experience’ into any future Government bid. The result is that firms that run immigration detention centres in the UK now handle Government Coronavirus operations. These corporate giants are hardly specialists in health-care. They are catch-all entities that have enough manpower and experience on paper to hoover up outsourcing deals. Presumably, seeing a market in the way private outsourcing is conducted in the UK, Johnson’s own brother has now taken on a directorship at a company that has recently expanded into Coronavirus testing.

The ostensible benefit of private sector outsourcing is to harness the knowledge and innovation of companies that work exclusively in a certain field. However, the firms repeatedly winning Government deals are corporate blobs with few distinguishing qualities versus the public sector, other than fewer resources and less accountability. In some ways, Dominic Cummings is right: we do need to rethink how public services are delivered in this country. However, his solution, ferrying out public contracts to corporate giants and big tech firms, will merely compound the current mess. The Government’s internal arithmetic doesn’t leave room for being wrong. Johnson and Cummings are so convinced about the inherent superiority of their beliefs that unwavering, quiet loyalty is the only thing demanded from agents of the administration. After all, why is alternative expertise and knowledge required, when the mission is rigid; solidified through its own perfection? So, dissenters have been culled and intellectually-absent figures have been installed to carry out the bidding of Downing Street and its all-powerful generals. As we have witnessed during this crisis, however, the Cummings-Johnson masterplan isn’t divine, and the people responsible for its implementation are dangerously out of their depth. At this point, the phrase often used to describe government in the UK, “lions led by donkeys,” is a gross injustice to donkeys.

A Second Coronavirus Wave was Only ‘Inevitable’ Because Johnson Messed Up
Mike Buckley, Byline Times, Sep 22 2020

Vallance, Whitty and Johnson. Photo: PA

Boris Johnson would have us believe that a second Coronavirus wave was “absolutely inevitable.” “Inevitability” absolves him of responsibility, and if there is one skill to which Johnson has applied himself it is the avoidance of responsibility. But the facts tell a different story. If a second wave was inevitable, then comparable countries such as Germany and Italy would have seen similar increases in infections. But their rates remain at the same low levels seen since the beginning of Summer. The truth is that Johnson only has himself to blame for the UK’s rising infection rate. The fact that other countries, including Spain and France, have made similar mistakes and themselves face rising infections and hospitalisations does nothing to change the fact that the UK’s plight is the direct result of decisions made by Johnson and his ministers. The Prime Minister has wasted the time afforded to him by the first lockdown and subsequent low infection levels. He was warned repeatedly by medical professionals and scientific advisors that September would present new challenges. The return of schools and universities, combined with the arrival of colder weather and hence more time spent inside where the virus spreads more easily, mean that infections rising was all but certain in the absence of mitigating measures, key among them a viable test-and-trace system.

It was also made more likely by the Chancellor’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, now proven to have been a driver of new infections, and by Johnson’s call to office workers to return to their desks and commutes as recently as three weeks ago. Johnson now has to live with the consequences of his actions. He has to impose what are likely to be draconian restrictions on the whole country, which could last for up to six months. The personal cost of this will be difficult, since public appetite for a return to the lockdown of the spring is precisely zero, but the economic, health and social costs will be huge. The economy has already suffered its worst downturn for decades. Projected job losses were already eye-wateringly high. We can now expect more jobs to be lost, and more businesses to close, and all this as we enter the final straight before a hard or ‘no deal’ Brexit and all its toxic implications for the economy, society and national politics. The vulnerable and isolated will again face new challenges and loneliness. Care home residents will again be cut off from friends and family. And, unless the NHS is given more resources, the already long queues of delayed operations and procedures will grow ever longer, costing more lives and leaving more people in pain and anxiety.

Choices could have be made to prevent this outcome. Lockdowns do not end a virus or its spread, they merely press pause to give authorities time to put longer-term measures in place. The Government wasted the time afforded by the first lockdown and the relatively benign Summertime when it should have been learning from, and replicating, best practice. A better Government would have used the time to develop a functioning test-and-trace system and the key objective over lockdown and the Summer should have been to carry out mass testing-and-tracing in order to aggressively seek out and eliminate community transmission of the Coronavirus. Some say that no country in the world has built a successful test-and-trace system, but the governments of China, Taiwan, Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea have done just that. Their populations and economies are reaping the rewards of few COVID-19 cases and relatively light restrictions. The Government could still invest in a viable test-and-trace system that returns results within 24 hours. It could provide accommodation such as hotels for people who test positive so that they do not have to isolate with family members at home. They could screen arrivals into the UK, which China was doing at its own airports back in March, to prevent new infections arriving from outside the country.

The Government also needs a long-term economic strategy. Its hope that things could return to a relative normality in the short-term has been dashed and it now needs to support workers and businesses for at least the medium-term, including at-risk sectors and the three million people so far excluded from Government support schemes. It is easy to despair at a Government so resistant to learning from others and so incapable of creating the systems and structures required to get through this crisis with a minimum loss of life and economic disruption. But despair won’t help. Instead, we need to redouble our efforts to encourage it to act where it has failed.

Government Spending on PPE Deals to Conservative Backers Rises to £364 Million
Sam Bright, Byline Times, Sep 21 2020

Boris campaigns for donations at the Conservative Party Annual Conference, Bournemouth, 2004.
(Photo: Chris Ison/PA)

The Government’s total outlay on personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts handed to Conservative Party donors and representatives has surged to £364m. In August, a report by The Times suggested that Boris Johnson’s Government had shelled out £180m on PPE deals to Conservative backers during the Coronavirus pandemic. However, a series of new investigations by Byline Times can reveal that this figure has now jumped to more than £360m.

  • Last week, Byline Times reported that Meller Designs had been awarded new contracts for the supply of hand sanitiser and face masks to the tune of £81.8m. This added to the PPE deals given to the company in May and released in June, worth £66.9m. Meller Designs specialises in supplying home and beauty products to high street retailers, including Marks & Spencer, and is owned by David Meller, who has donated nearly £60k to Conservative politicians and the central party since 2009. A Meller Designs spox told The Times in August, when details of the first deals emerged: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the crisis and managed to secure more than 150m items of PPE.” Meller Designs recorded a turnover of £12.8m in 2019 and £13.7m in 2018, meaning that its income from the Government represents a significant boost to the company’s financial position.
  • Byline Times also revealed last week that another company linked to the Conservatives has benefitted from the Government’s PPE largesse. Globus (Shetland) Limited, a firm that has donated £400k to the Conservative Party since 2016, won a £93.8m contract in July for the supply of FFP3 respirators. The value of this contract is equivalent to the total revenue of Globus (Shetland) over the past two years. In 2019, the company turned over £50m, following a £45.8m turnover in 2018. The Government awarded the deal without going to competitive tender, taking advantage of an EU loophole that allows governments to procure supplies rapidly during an emergency. None of the contracts cited in this article went to competitive tender. For its part, Globus (Shetland) does appear to specialise in the manufacture of PPE. On its website, it states that it has 25 years of experience in supplying “industry and healthcare.” This includes experience in manufacturing respirators.
  • P14 Medical was awarded two deals for the supply of ‘face shields’ back in April, worth £120.2m. The firm is run by Steve Dechan, a Conservative councillor in Gloucestershire, has 10 employees, and made a £486k loss in 2019. Dechan told The Times that the PPE contracts were not awarded because of his links to the Conservative Party and that the Government has been “delighted” with the 120m face shields delivered so far. He said: “We’ve had zero complaints. I couldn’t be prouder of how we managed such large numbers in such a short time.”
  • Finally, The Times reported that a firm called Clipper Logistics had won a £1.3m contract from the Government to distribute PPE. The founder and executive chairman of Clipper Logistics is Steve Parkin, who has donated more than £500k to the Conservative Party. Clipper Logistics declined to comment when approached by The Times.

The Government’s outlay on PPE procurement contracts has amounted to at least £5b during the COVID-19 crisis, a colossal private sector spending splurge carried out in just a few months. Due to the scale and pace of this spending, it is difficult to keep track of all the recipients. It is therefore highly likely that the £364m figure identified by Byline Times is a marked underestimate of the deals received by Conservative Party backers, with some slipping under the radar. Questions are beginning to be asked about the Government’s outgoings. Raising the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this month, Labour MP Rushanara Ali asked Boris Johnson to provide the full receipts of his Government’s spending. Ali wrote in a follow-up letter:

We all understand the need for speed and scale of the emergency, but this does not mean the normal conventions of procurement should be ignored completely, and especially when such large sums of taxpayers’ money are involved.

This is also a critical issue for health-care professionals, with the chair of the BMA Dr Chaand Nagpaul calling for adequate PPE to be supplied to doctors and nurses ahead of an expected second wave of COVID-19. At least 34 doctors died during the first wave of the pandemic, in large part due to a scant supply of PPE. It is crucial that the Government’s procurement contracts are now delivering the goods. Dr Nagpail said last week:

We have the nation’s back, but the Government must have ours or we will all fall down. We owe each doctor who has laid down their life our gratitude, and their loved ones our profound sorrow. Never ever again should doctors and health-care workers fail to be adequately protected in the course of their duty.

Is Boris Johnson Risking Another Constitutional Conflict with the Queen?
Byline Times Team, Sep 21 2020

BoJo & the Queen in Jul 2019. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA

Back in 1964, in a speech in Quebec, Canada, the Queen articulated the role of the monarch in a way that is very relevant today. Her duty was to “personify the democratic state, to sanction legitimate authority, to ensure the legality of its measures, and to guarantee the execution of the popular will.” This is also the view of constitutional experts. According to Anne Twomey, author of the The Veiled Sceptre: Reserve Powers of Heads of State in Westminster Systems and an expert in the powers of the Crown, the head of state is “sometimes regarded as the guardian of the Constitution and the independent authority that certifies the legality of government action.” In a parliamentary democracy, while the Queen acts upon ministerial advice, she must be satisfied that her actions are lawful. This presents an acute problem where the Internal Market Bill is concerned, a piece of legislation that if employed would be in breach of international law, as ministers have themselves acknowledged. The Bill would allow Boris Johnson’s Government to break its own Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated with the EU last year, by amending customs arrangements and risking a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

If MPs vote for the Bill, as is expected, it could force a constitutional crisis, with the Queen well within her rights to refuse to give the legislation Royal Assent. Indeed, whilst it is true that Parliament can, according to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, legislate on anything it likes, including whether or not to break international law, the Queen cannot.Historically, this was never an issue. There is a long-standing convention that Government officials would refuse to put before the monarch legislation that could be regarded as unconstitutional, regardless of whether or not the matter of legality could be later resolved by a court. That convention appears to have been disregarded by Johnson’s Government. If both Houses of Parliament vote in favour of it, the Queen will need to sign the Internal Market Bill in order for it to become law. She will effectively be asked to sign a piece of legislation that gives the Government power to break its international obligations, putting her Government above the law and undermining the balance of the Constitution.

We know that the Government has a cavalier attitude towards rule-breaking. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson had unlawfully prorogued Parliament, preventing scrutiny of the very Brexit agreement that he now seeks to trash. And with COVID-19 raging across Britain, the Government has taken this opportunity to grant itself “draconian” powers, warns Lady Hale, the former president of the Supreme Court. This agenda has likely been pushed by the Prime Minister’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, who has shown little regard for rules and conventions. Cummings himself is still in contempt of Parliament for refusing to appear before a committee of MPs investigating political misinformation. And who can forget his 260-mile trip to Durham during the Coronavirus lockdown in May, which coincided with the Government telling people to only leave their own homes for essential activities? Faced with repeated accusations of lawlessness, the Government is now turning its attention to the legal system, threatening changes to stifle “activist lawyers.” It appears willing to bulldoze any institution that stands in its way, from Parliament to the judiciary. Is the monarchy next?

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