Just over a year ago the Cheltenham Races went ahead, a huge annual horse racing festival attended by thousands. Together with other major sporting events in the same week, this is calculated to have given rise to 17,000 Covid cases, 500 hospitalisations and over 100 deaths. By the end of the following week, the country was in lockdown.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has close links to the horse racing industry and has been criticised for receiving over £350,000 in donations from leading figures associated with it. Hancock’s former neighbour, publican Alex Bourne, won contracts worth £30 million to produce vials for Covid tests, despite having no prior experience. After initially denying that he knew Hancock or had profited from his friendship with him, Bourne later admitted that they had exchanged texts and emails for months. He is now under investigation by the UK’s medicine agency (MHRA) over concerns about hygiene and safety standards.
Former cabinet minister Owen Paterson is another close associate with horse racing links who has benefited hugely from the pandemic. The husband of the late Rose Paterson, a director of the Jockey Club who ran the Aintree racecourse, Paterson is an adviser to the private healthcare company Randox. Originally given £133 million for testing kits, Randox was then awarded a further £347 million without competitive tendering, despite the recall of kits last summer.
Polly Toynbee argues that these cases are typical of the “chumocracy” and shocking secrecy surrounding the “favours to friends” approach adopted by the government. In the first six months of the pandemic, contracts worth £18 billion for PPE and other Covid-related items were awarded; the National Audit Office found that contacts of ministers and MPs were 10 times more likely to gain contracts through a “high-priority lane”, with no competitive process.
Unlawful contract non-disclosures
The Good Law Project (GLP) and three MPs, including Brighton’s Caroline Lucas, recently won their case against Hancock’s department for its “wholesale failure” to disclose details of contracts awarded within the required 30 days. The judge found that the health secretary had acted unlawfully in a “substantial number of cases” – 217 out of 520 – and stated that the public was entitled to know how the money was being spent. However, outrageously, Hancock refused to apologise or resign, arguing that he had acted in the national interest and that he would breach the law again if needed.
Boris Johnson then falsely claimed that all the contracts had been published, when his own lawyers admitted that 100 were not on the record. The GLP has found that new contracts are still being awarded secretly, including £22.6 million to Tory-linked firm Bunzl Healthcare, and has launched new legal proceedings against Hancock. It seems that nothing shames this government.
Test and Trace gets more funding
Hancock is not the only one with horse racing connections. Dido Harding is another director of the Jockey Club and chair of the unbelievably expensive Test and Trace programme. A cross-party group of MPs recently found that there is “no clear evidence” that the £22 billion scheme has contributed to reduction in Covid infection levels. Some consultants on the programme have been paid a staggering £6,000 a day. Despite the poor results, Huffington Post revealed that the scheme will receive a further £15 billion funding from the recent Budget.
There is an enormous contrast between this highly centralised yet ineffective scheme, branded NHS but largely outsourced to companies like Serco, and the very successful vaccination programme, administered by the NHS through local healthcare teams. A recent Survation poll, commissioned by Keep Our NHS Public, found that the public has an overwhelmingly negative view of the Test and Trace system, compared with 80 per cent who think the vaccine rollout has been a success.
Derisory pay offer to nurses
In contrast to the vast amounts being spent on these schemes and contracts, the 1 per cent pay rise offered to nurses is rightly considered “insulting”. It is hard to believe health minister Nadine Dorries’s claim that this is “the most” the government can afford. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) estimates that this derisory offer only amounts to an extra £3.50 a week; with inflation, it is basically a pay cut. After weeks of clapping for the NHS last year, it seems like a kick in the teeth for nursing staff who have been working flat out for months, helping to care for Covid patients at huge personal risk and with a massive impact on their mental health. The RCN predicts that significant numbers will leave the profession because they do not feel valued.
Unsurprisingly, there has been an enormous public outcry about this pay offer. A petition by change.org for a 15 per cent pay rise has already gained 650,000 signatures. The nurses’ union is preparing for strike action and even some Conservative MPs are expressing concern, responding to angry reactions from constituents. The government is now considering a U-turn, as it did over free school meals, and a rise of 2-3 per cent is being predicted.
Whilst billions are spent on the Test and Trace scheme and huge PPE contracts are still being awarded through the VIP fast-track system, a decent pay rise is the very least that nurses should expect.