In Britain's pandemic response, cronyism is an infectious disease

The bungling of PPE sourcing contracts demonstrates the corruption in Whitehall

Pedestrians walk past a COVID-19 information sign asking people to social distance in central London, on November 27, 2020. Britain's economy is set to shrink 11.3 percent this year, suffering the greatest annual slump in more than three centuries on coronavirus fallout, the government forecast Wednesday. Britain has been one of the worst-affected countries in the world in the Covid-19 outbreak, registering almost 56,000 deaths.
 / AFP / Tolga Akmen
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There has been plenty of talk about the rate of viral transmission for Covid-19, known as the "R rate", in recent months. But even if this R number had been well above "1" throughout the entire pandemic, it would have been dwarfed by another measure – which I am calling the "C rate". For the uninitiated, this is the barometer in various countries of the transmission of taxpayer money into the hands of government cronies and chums. And, in the UK alone, Covid-19 has seen the C rate career out of control.

Take last week's news that a Spanish jewellery designer was paid £21 million ($28m) to source personal protective equipment (PPE) during Covid's first wave, a deal one newspaper cited as evidence of a "chumocracy".

According to UK media reports, the jeweller Gabriel Gonzalez Andersson acted as a middleman for a US supplier, Florida-based jewellery designer Michael Saiger, and manufacturers based in China. Court documents suggest Mr Andersson was enlisted for the “procurement, logistics, due diligence, product sourcing and quality control" of PPE. They also show Mr Saiger as having described the PPE deals as lucrative. A legal dispute is playing out in Miami.

The Good Law Project, set up by British barrister Jolyon Maugham, is one organisation attempting to “challenge abuses of power, exploitation, inequality and injustice”. Through legal channels the project is attempting to shine a light on Whitehall’s PPE procurement process. There is much to investigate.

According to the UK Treasury Department’s own figure, £15 billion has been lavished on contracts since the pandemic began. It’s a sizeable sum, but the very English nature of the scandal only becomes apparent when the figure is interrogated.

The Good Law Project has exposed three of the biggest beneficiaries of this state largesse: Pestfix, Clandeboye and Ayanda Capital. None has any demonstrable previous experience in PPE production.

Given the disjunction between contractual award and expertise, it is hardly surprising that the government is eschewing convention and refusing to publish contract details within the legal framework of 20 days.

However, there is another reason that the government’s disregard for the law is unsurprising. It calculates that even if it is dragged through the courts, the court it really cares about – that of public opinion – won’t be alarmed enough to vote it out of power come the next general election.

If cronyism as a concept were in the dock, though, then the trial would be swift and the verdict damning.

Unemployment in the UK is poised to soar. According to the Office for National Statistics, for July to September it stood at 4.8 per cent, but that was when large parts of the economy were opening up. Meanwhile, mayors such as Manchester’s Andy Burnham have been denied the extra £5m they require to support an entire region. Businesses have been folding, and the real heroes of the pandemic – public sector workers – are now facing the prospect of a pay freeze in the name of "balancing the books".

This made it all the more galling when the UK government deemed it acceptable to sign off on a deal that parachuted £21m into the pocket of the unqualified Spanish jeweller, Mr Andersson, for acting as a middle man.

Whether the PPE Mr Andersson was involved in procuring was up to scratch has yet to be revealed, due to the ongoing court case. The 50 million face masks provided by another government source with no prior PPE credentials, the aforementioned Ayanda Capital, certainly weren’t; they were deemed unusable. It is uncertain whether the £155m this offshore fund was paid will be returned to the British taxpayer.

The question exposes another strand of the UK’s "hypercronysim". If the disbursal of taxpayer money into the boardrooms of government friends, and friends of friends, had yielded a positive result, then it could have been argued that the ends justified the means.

epa08817699 Dido Harding, Head of the NHS Test and Trace programme in London, Britain, 13 November 2020.  According to news reports Britain's health bosses say that the new lockdown measures indicate that the national test and trace programme 'is not working'.  EPA/ANDY RAIN
Dido Harding, head of the NHS test-and-trace programme in London, has come under scrutiny. EPA

When it comes to the UK’s handling of Covid-19, however, the ends are so far away from the means that justification is difficult. Britain's excess death rate, the highest in Europe, is a tragic product of this malaise. As things stand, the country has seen more than 50,000 coronavirus-linked deaths.

The uncoupling of result from remuneration is a corrosion of Britain's capitalist ideals. Take UK vaccine taskforce head Kate Bingham, spouse of Conservative MP Jesse Norman. Or the head of the UK's flawed test-and-trace system, Dido Harding, yet another spouse of yet another Conservative MP, John Penrose, and a friend of former prime minister David Cameron.

Were they the candidates best-suited for their respective, vital tasks? Ms Bingham’s decision to award a £640 million contract to a communications firm suggests otherwise.

Mr Maugham's Good Law Project, in concert with race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, took note of their unchallenged coronations and in November submitted a legal challenge to the high court alleging that the government had acted "unlawfully" in appointing them.

In short, whilst the UK ought to worry about its R rate, it should be terrified of its rampant C rate.

Tim Kiek is a homepage editor at The National's London bureau