Matt Hancock has been accused of accelerating the dismantling of the NHS by using the coronavirus pandemic to transfer key public health duties to the private sector without proper scrutiny.
Doctors, campaign groups, academics and MPs raised the concerns about a “power grab” after it emerged on Monday that Serco was in pole position to win a deal to supply 15,000 call-handlers for the government’s tracking and tracing operation.
Bypassing normal tendering
It comes as ministers have been found to use special powers to bypass normal tendering and award a string of contracts to private companies and management consultants without open competition.
Deloitte, KPMG, Serco, Sodexo, Mitie, Boots and the US data mining group Palantir have secured taxpayer-funded commissions to manage Covid-19 drive-in testing centres, the purchasing of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the building of Nightingale hospitals.
And according to a leaked letter seen by the Guardian, the Department of Health has told NHS trusts to stop buying any of their own PPE and ventilators.
From Monday, procurement of a list of 16 items must be handled centrally in a move that is likely to benefit Deloitte.
Creeping privatisation of the NHS
Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, warned that the government “must not allow the current crisis to be used as cover to extend the creeping privatisation of the NHS,” with Tony O’Sullivan, a retired paediatrician who co-chairs the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, adding that this was a “dangerous time” for the NHS.
Allyson Pollock, the director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science, said tasks including testing, contact tracing and purchasing should be handled through regional authorities rather than central government.
“We are beginning to see the construction of parallel structures, having eviscerated the old ones,” she said. “I don’t think this is anything new, it just seems to be accelerated under Matt Hancock. These structures are completely divorced from local residents, local health services and local communities.”