For any country, dealing with a pandemic like Covid-19 would be an enormous challenge. There are countless difficult decisions to be made every single day and some of these decisions will have huge implications for millions of people, reaching into parts of their lives where government doesn’t normally go. Throughout 2020, we’ve seen governments right across the world work out how to deal with this crisis and a whole range of different approaches taken, with varying success.
Unfortunately for us here in the UK, our own government’s response has been incredibly poor. For the reasons outlined above, it was never going to be easy to deal with this crisis but it certainly didn’t have to be this difficult. Sadly, the UK has taken one of the biggest economic hits from coronavirus whilst also experiencing one of the highest mortality rates. The choice between protecting public health and protecting the economy was always a false one, but the government has managed to fail on both counts.
We will all have our own views on what went wrong, but I’d like to focus on one small element and that is the government’s use of consultants during the pandemic. I should start by saying that I’m not arguing against consultants in all circumstances – getting in people with expertise to help out when it’s needed can be incredibly useful. The issue comes when consultants are seen as a silver bullet, magically solving any problem that comes up – if the problem isn’t solved, why not just throw more consultants at it?
That’s obviously a ridiculous approach, but that is the approach that this government has taken. There’s no better example of this than in the Track and Trace mess. We found out recently that consultants from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) were being paid the equivalent of £1.5 million annual wages to work on the programme. And what has the result been? We still don’t have a properly functioning Test and Trace system – now that we have the vaccine, we may never have one. What’s so frustrating in this case though was that the expertise and knowledge to do this effectively was already in the public sector – in our local councils. But instead of helping councils to deliver these vital services, the government were firing money every which way at consultants, dazzled by their fancy titles from big name multinational firms.
This is all part of a wider pattern of outsourcing driven by ideology rather than the public good. A belief that the private sector has all the answers all the time is hugely misguided and has led to some disastrous mistakes. At the same time, many brilliant companies have been passed over for government contracts – despite expertise and capacity – in favour of the friends and family of government ministers or of Tory donors. This isn’t helped by a revolving door between government and the consultancies which they give work to.
This has all been particularly bad during the pandemic due to a complete lack of transparency from the government on how contracts are being awarded. Millions and millions of pounds are being spent by the government without open and fair processes. This is unfair on the other companies and organisations bidding for work or offering services, but is also a huge disservice to the UK public. By bypassing the usual processes, we have no guarantee about the quality of the work or products being bought and this has led to millions in taxpayers’ money being wasted on faulty equipment and PPE, or bad advice from consultants with no relevant expertise.
These issues have been apparent for months and it seems that the government is refusing to learn any lessons from early in the pandemic to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t repeated again and again and again. Of course, this goes for many different aspects of the crisis far beyond the use of consultants and procurement more generally, including distribution issues, public messaging and following the advice of scientists and other experts.
Once the immediate crisis of the pandemic is over, there will need to be some very thorough investigations into the government’s handling of the situation. The public deserves to know where, why and how things went wrong, where money was wasted or opportunities to save lives missed. At the inevitable inquiry, I think that some shocking stories will come out about corruption and incompetence in procurement and contracting of consultants. We need to know what went on here and hold those responsible within government to account for these decisions. Whilst so many people have struggled during this pandemic – losing jobs, businesses and livelihoods – others have profited greatly despite failing to deliver. This is wrong and we need answers.
Andrew Gwynne is Labour MP for Denton and Reddish