Privatisation Shock Doctrine in full effect as the Tories take advantage of the COVID-19 Crisis

Daragh O’Neill sounds the alarm bell on creeping Tory privatisation of our NHS, which is taking advantage of coronavirus gripping the country to accelerate changes and siphon off public money.

In the midst of the greatest challenge for public health in living memory, the Tories are continuing to take full advantage of the threat to maximise private profits. Sadly this is a path well trodden by the Conservative Party in every bout of privatisation since Thatcher and her successors established neoliberalism as the economic model for Britain.

The last decade has seen it rise to new heights though, with many secretaries of state either benefiting directly, or through their friends and family, from the privatisation they have directly over seen. Back in 2010 Andrew Lansley as Health Secretay and Theresa May as Home Secretary both had interests in companies that benefited from NHS and Police privatisation respectively. Their success so far, and continued popularity from enough of the electorate, has encouraged them to keep the gravy train running.

A series of new appointments to the Board of Trade have confirmed just how far NHS privateers have come, and how the current government are taking full advantage of the crisis to secure their strategic aims, even while headlines of Johnson’s incompetence abound. Tony Abbott, ex Australian Prime Minister infamous for scrapping taxes on mining in Australia to keep Australian mining ‘competitive’ and carbon emissions high has been appointed. As has Daniel Harran an ex Tory MP, who in the Economist expressed his “deep admiration” for the USA and wrote that popular support for the NHS is due to a ‘knot of hard-line leftists’ and that “Obamacare should be ‘strangled at birth“.[1] This coupled with his praise of Enoch Powell, sits him in good company with many self-proclaimed libertarian’s who also have much admiration for fascists, and just happen use the same phrases and slogans.

Both men are members of Initiative Free Trade, a London think tank that produced a report in 2018 called ‘Ideal US- UK Free Trade’.[2] It is worth noting that this was published in association with the Koch brother’s founded Cato Institute, which for years funded studies to “raise uncertainty about climate science” until it closed last year.[3] This report said  “health services are an area where both sides would benefit from openness to foreign competition”. Whilst also noting “Any changes to existing regulations will be extremely controversial” so “the initial focus should be on other fields such as education or legal services” so “negotiators can test the water and see what is possible”.[4] The Board of Trade was revitalised in 2017 to play a new role in the Department of International Trade, which will see an expanded role now that Britain is leaving the EU.

The long list of private healthcare donors to the Tory party has continued, and has in the last year seen the awarding of many contracts to private health companies, despite a long list of failures to deliver accompanying them. Matt Hanckock has appointed the owner of Vanguard Healthcare, Wol Kolade, as the head of ‘NHS Improvements’ after their hundreds of thousands of pounds of donations to the Tories and £10,000 to Hancock personally. This despite the company’s failures in the past to deliver medical procedures, high rates of complications and, like so many outsourced services, an impenetrable web, perfect for avoiding taking responsibilities for such failures.[5]

At the same time Dominic Cummings former company, Bablyon Health has been awarded a £250 million contracts for AI in the NHS.[6] The rich and powerful’s ability to not only continue to enrich themselves but in fact increase their share of wealth[7] will be little comfort for those whose lives have been disrupted, or loved ones lost, but this has remained at the forefront of policy throughout COVID-19.

The decision was taken to prioritise funding private initiatives in every aspect of the governments coronavirus response. One such beneficiary has been Medicines Discovery Catapult, launched in 2015 and whose stated job is to ‘commercialise’ medical breakthroughs. They were put in charge coordinating of 3 private labs, which have seen a poor track record along with a diversion of resources away from public labs.[8] Though a private company, their annual budget shows only £500,000 from private sector cash, and £10 million in public sector funding. This was before the £5bn of funding made available for private companies to set up labs to test for COVID-19

While they were given these contracts, they were only able to process tests in 72 hours, as opposed to the 6 hours in NHS labs[9], meaning they were doing the job worse but for more money. Capitalism’s chief metric is not the efficiency to deliver a service as its supporters so often claim, but its efficiency to deliver private profits, regardless of the human outcome or the benefit to society as a whole.

This market focused approach has also been the underlying issue with PPE procurement too, as while responsibility is still technically with the NHS, the fact is it is outsourced to private contractors, then sub contracted again, leaving expertise and experience a low priority, and adding needless complexity in to supply systems. The end result has been the awarding of contracts to companies obviously unable to deliver, and an inability to develop long-term supply chains within the NHS.

The British Medical Association has stated that is the reliance on ‘aggressive outsourcing’ that has undermined the NHS’s ability to respond the pandemic and ensure adequate supplies, especially of PPE, a fact made apparent in 2016 during a simulated exercise of a pandemic, though this was in turn ignored by the government.[10] Cutting costs reduces capacity, and the ability to expand capacity in a crisis, as we have sadly seen.

Public Health England has also been axed as a useful scapegoat, and is to be replaced by National Institute for Health Protection, led to Baroness Dido Harding, known for data leaks at TalkTalk[11], failure to deliver the Test and Trace system[12], and already Chair of NHS Improvements, another public body to facilitate private sector involvement in the NHS, through the labyrinth of Foundation Trusts.[13]

Unfortunately we are paying the price in human lives for the Tories desire to enrich the private sector. This corrupt use of public funds has become a pillar of British capitalism. Privatisation undermines democracy in any meaningful sense as, more and more, public oversight, let alone any notion of public ownership, is driven out of services as vital as healthcare.

NHS privatisation has never been supported by the public, nor ever explicitly included in a Tory manifesto. To rebuild the NHS a clear and consistent political project is needed to halt the now snowballing destruction of the public healthcare.

Daragh O’Neill


[1] https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/kill-obamacare-or-us-healthcare-will-suffer-same-fate-as-britain

[2] http://ifreetrade.org/publication/an_ideal_us_uk_fta

[3] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/05/us-think-tank-shuts-down-prominent-center-challenged-climate-science

[4] Private Eye , No 1530, 11/9/20 – 24/9/20 p.7

[5] https://www.somersetcountygazette.co.uk/news/11538595.read-the-report-into-eye-surgery-problems-at-somerset-hospital/

[6] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/exposed-12-worrying-links-between-21013592

[7] https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/18516290.uk-billionaires-see-personal-wealth-grow-25bn-pandemic-lockdown/

[8] Private Eye , No 1530, 11/9/20 – 24/9/20, P9

[9] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-testing-lighthouse-labs-nhs-deaths-delay-a9589381.html

[10] https://www.bma.org.uk/news-and-opinion/outsourced-and-undermined-the-covid-19-windfall-for-private-providers

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/feb/01/talktalk-chief-executive-dido-harding-cyber-attack

[12] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-nhs-test-trace-call-centres-contact-figures-a9668536.html

[13] https://publicmatters.org.uk/2019/10/08/how-much-of-the-nhs-in-england-has-already-been-privatised/


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53498675

[2] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/covid-19-funding-for-domestic-abuse-and-sexual-violence-support-services

[3] https://www.womensaid.org.uk/appg-reports/

[4] https://www.womensaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/The-Domestic-Abuse-Report-2020-The-Annual-Audit.pdf

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/23/council-funding-womens-refuges-cut-since-2010-england-wales-scotland

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/21/tackle-domestic-violence-ensure-womens-refuges-funded

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/02/world/europe/uk-coronavirus-domestic-abuse.html

[8]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/888535/pcc-funding-covid-19-guidance.pdf

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/23/council-funding-womens-refuges-cut-since-2010-england-wales-scotland

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