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Culpable Negligence

May 30, 2020 - 03:11 -- Admin

The disastrous collapse of the UK’s pandemic response has been caused by the deliberate evisceration of our health services. Worse is coming.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 27th
May 2020

Amid the smog of lies and contradictions, there is one
question we should never stop asking: why has the government of the United
Kingdom so spectacularly failed to defend people’s lives? Why has “this
fortress built by Nature for herself against infection”, as Shakespeare
described our islands, succumbed to a greater extent than any other European
nation to a foreseeable and containable pandemic?

Part of the answer, as my column explored
last week
, is that the government knowingly and deliberately stood down
crucial parts of its emergency response system. Another part is that, when it
did at last seek to mobilise the system, essential bits of the machine
immediately fell off. There is a consistent reason for the multiple, systemic
failures the pandemic has exposed: the intrusion of corporate power into public
policy. Privatisation, commercialisation, outsourcing and offshoring have
severely compromised the UK’s ability to respond to a crisis.

Take, for example, the lethal failures to provide protective
clothing, masks and other equipment (PPE) to health workers. A report
by the campaigning group We Own It
explains why so many doctors, nurses and
other hospital workers have died unnecessarily of Covid-19. It reveals a system
built around the needs not of health workers or patients, but of corporations
and commercial contracts: a system that could scarcely be better designed for
failure.

Four layers of commercial contractors, each rich with
opportunities for profit taking, stand between doctors and nurses and the
equipment they need. These layers are then fragmented into 11 tottering,
uncoordinated supply chains, creating an almost perfect formula for chaos.
Among the many weak links in these chains are consultancy companies like
Deloitte, whose farcical attempts to procure emergency supplies of PPE have
been fiercely criticised
by both manufacturers and health workers. At the
end of the chains are manufacturing companies, some of which have mysteriously
been granted monopolies on the supply of essential equipment. These private
monopolies have repeatedly fallen over, either failing to meet their contracts,
or providing defective gear to the entire NHS, like the 15
million protective goggles
and the planeload of useless
surgical gowns
that had to be recalled.

Instead of stockpiling supplies, as emergency preparedness
demands, companies in these chains have been using just-in-time production
systems, whose purpose is to cut their costs by minimising stocks. Their
minimised systems could not be scaled up fast enough to meet the shortfall.
Where there should be a smooth, coordinated, accountable programme, there’s
opacity, byzantine complexity and total chaos. So much for the efficiencies of
privatisation.

The pandemic has also exposed the privatised care system as
catastrophically unfit and ill-prepared. In 1993, 95% of care at home was provided
publicly by local authorities
. Now, almost all of it – and almost all
residential care – is provided by private companies. Even before the pandemic,
the system was falling apart, as many care companies, unable to balance the
needs of their patients with the demands of their shareholders, collapsed, often
with disastrous consequences. Now we discover just
how dangerous
their commercial imperatives have become, as the drive to
make care profitable has created a fragmented, incoherent system, answerable
only to offshore owners, failing to meet basic standards, employing harassed
workers on zero hour contracts. If there is one thing we have learnt from this
pandemic, it’s the need for a publicly-owned, publicly-run National
Care Service
– the care equivalent of the NHS.

It could all become much worse, due to another result of
corporate power. A report
by the Corporate Europe Observatory
shows how law firms are exploring the
possibility of suing governments for the measures they have taken to stop the
pandemic. Many trade treaties contain a provision called “investor state
dispute settlement”. This enables corporations to sue governments in opaque
offshore tribunals, for any policies that might affect their “future
anticipated profits”.

So when governments, in response to the coronavirus, have
imposed travel restrictions, or requisitioned hotels, or instructed companies
to produce medical equipment, or to limit the prices they charge for drugs, the
companies could sue them for the loss of the money they might otherwise have
made. When the UK government commandeers
private hospitals
or when the Spanish government prevents evictions by
landlords, and stops water and electricity companies from
cutting off destitute customers
, they could be open to international legal
challenge. Already, these measures, which override democracy, have crippled
attempts by many governments
, particularly of poorer nations, to protect
their people from disasters. They urgently need to be rescinded.

The effectiveness of our health system is also threatened
by the trade treaty
the UK government hopes to sign with the US. The
Conservatives promised
in their manifesto
that “the NHS is not on the table” in the trade talks.
But they have already broken their accompanying promise: “we will not
compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food
standards”. Earlier this month, they voted that measure out
of the Agriculture Bill
. US companies are aggressively demanding access to
the NHS. The talks will be extremely complex and incomprehensible to almost
everyone. There will be plenty of opportunities to give them what they want
while fooling voters.

Boris Johnson’s central mission, overseen by Dominic
Cummings, is to break down all barriers between government and the power of
money. It is to allow private interests to intrude into the very heart of
government, while marginalising the civil service. This helps to explain why
Johnson is so reluctant to let Cummings go. The disasters of the past few weeks
hint at the likely results.

www.monbiot.com