By Natasha Hakimi Zapata / The Nation
LONDON—Chumocracy. That’s what critics have been calling the British government during the pandemic—and not without reason. A report in the British Medical Journal found that over the past year, as Britain’s Covid-19 death toll mounted to nearly 130,000 deaths, one in five government Covid-19 contracts had signs of possible corruption. It seems that as soon as Covid-19 began to spread through the British Isles, Conservative officials and their high-ranking business buds were coming up with ways to reap financial benefits from the deadly crisis. Yet, despite ongoing controversy and increased public scrutiny, there seems to be no end in sight to this sort of pandemic profiteering, with new examples emerging even as the country begins to shed its stringent restrictions.
As early as March 2020, Boris Johnson’s government had begun handing out billions of pounds in British taxpayers’ money to private companies, for everything from personal protective equipment to testing kits, without even the whisper of a formal bidding process. Emergency pandemic regulations allowed officials, such as the much-maligned Health Minister Matt Hancock, to “fast-track” public contracts as the rules requiring competitive tenders were waived. Although Johnson, Hancock, and others have argued that this expediency was necessary in the context of the pandemic, the examples of overt cronyism speak for themselves.
It seems even Johnson himself may have been involved in dodgy dealings during the height of the pandemic, as texts recently acquired by the BBC show the prime minister promising Tory donor and billionaire Brexiteer Sir James Dyson—best known for his upscale vacuum cleaners—tax perks for building ventilators that, ultimately, were mostly neither built nor needed. Examples of corruption or, at the very least, improper dealings, have shown up in countries around the world during the pandemic, including in the United States where the Brookings Institute found that at least $10.5 billion in Covid-19 public funds went to political or blood relations of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, as well as Trump’s cronies and donors. In the UK, just as in the US, there are entrenched corporate interests that exert power over politics through donations and lobbying—for further illustrations of this, look no further than former prime minister David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital—or the “cash for curtains” scandal about Johnson using Tory donor money to refurbish his private Downing Street living quarters. Perhaps most importantly, the accusations of “chumocracy” also highlight a centuries-old systemic elitism—propped up by private schools and high society hobbies like horse racing—that ties Britain’s wealthiest to those in power, especially in the ruling Conservative party.
Although Johnson has told Parliament and the public his government has been nothing but transparent, it was revealed that even as the prime minister made these proclamations, at least 100 Covid-19 contracts were concealed from the public. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former right-hand man who is often credited with winning him both Brexit and the 2020 general election, recently testified before Parliament giving a staggering 7-hour account of the detailed inner-workings of Johnson’s government throughout the critical first months of the pandemic. Cummings painted a picture of a prime minister and cabinet not only plagued with incompetence, but callously eager to put financial interests above public health concerns, arguing that, “Tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die.” Johnson’s former chief special adviser also confirmed a leaked story claiming that in the fall, the prime minister flippantly said he’d rather let “the bodies pile high in their thousands” than call another lockdown. The phrase points to a stark reality that British journalists have been uncovering in recent months: to Johnson and his circle, the majority of Britons are merely cannon fodder to be sacrificed for their economic gain.
Some of the biggest controversies in the UK revolve around contracts for Covid-19 testing. Rather than invest in existing National Health Service infrastructure to ramp up testing capacity, which We Own It’s Pascale Robinson tells The Nation would have likely yielded better results, the UK government immediately charged private companies with carrying out community testing. At the end of March last year, Randox Laboratories, a private health care company based in Northern Ireland, was awarded a no-bid contract of £133 ($188) million for Covid-19 testing throughout the nation. Days before the deal was done and dusted, Mark Campbell, a senior manager at Randox, attended the infamous March 17 pandemic planning meeting where the prime minister and several other high-ranking government officials contracted Covid-19. Campbell, too, caught the coronavirus and promptly passed it on to Randox founder Peter FitzGerald. Then in November, the company’s contract was renewed for another £347 ($491) million despite the company having to recall 750,000 tests sent to nursing homes due to “safety concerns” just a few months before.
Given Tory officials’ penchant for funneling public money into their pals’ pockets, it’ll likely surprise no one to learn that FitzGerald—a doctor from Northern Ireland who describes himself as a “keen equestrian”—happens to have ties to the very same Jockey Club that both Harding and Hancock belong to. The Randox-Tory horse-racing ties don’t stop there: most egregiously, FitzGerald’s company has a sitting Conservative Member of Parliament on its payroll whom The Times describes as FitzGerald’s “horse riding friend.” Owen Paterson, a Tory representative for England’s North Shropshire constituency, has been employed by Randox at a rate of £100,000 ($142,000) a year since 2015. Although Paterson has previously come under scrutiny for lobbying on behalf of Randox and promoting its products to government officials, these ties didn’t raise a single eyebrow within the DHSC as it handed Randox a tidy half a billion pounds (just over $700 million).
Now Randox seems set to emerge as the biggest winner of yet another pandemic profiteering opportunity presented by the government’s “test to travel” scheme. As of mid-May, the United Kingdom officially opened its borders to international travel for non-essential reasons and established a “traffic light system.” Depending on what countries they are entering the UK from, all travelers must pay out-of-pocket for at least one reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test. While everyone must show proof of a negative RT-PCR test upon arriving in the UK as well as purchase a day 2 test, travelers entering from the majority of countries—listed as “amber”—must pay for an additional day 8 test while self-isolating for a minimum of ten days. They also have the option to purchase an added “test to release” to cut their quarantine in half.
Roughly 350 private Covid travel test providers have made it onto the British government’s approved list, and a whopping 87 advertise a connection to Randox, considered one of the biggest—if not the biggest—supplier of travel tests in the UK. The private health care company has also made lucrative deals with several airlines, including popular low-cost airlines Ryanair and EasyJet, to provide discounted tests to their customers. This is all in addition to numerous other private and public contracts for testing throughout Britain. While prices range from £84 ($119) to £390 ($553) for a single RT-PCR test depending on the provider, Randox charges £175 ($248) for a kit containing day 2 and day 8 tests or £120 ($170) for a single test. For those traveling with its partner airlines, the company has slashed its test price to £60 ($85).
British MPs have argued that Covid tests can be 80 percent cheaper in other countries. Although prices vary widely from country to country, a 2004 scientific study of RT-PCR costs for SARS-CoV-19 might serve as a useful marker for what they should really cost. Back then Canadian researchers found tests processed in-house cost on average C$12 ($10), which, adjusted for inflation, comes out to just C$16 ($13). Recently, a Telegraph investigation also found that in the UK, processing chemicals for RT-PCR tests currently cost a sixth what Randox is charging most of its customers.
Ian Evans, Chair of Unite’s Health Care Sciences National Occupational and Professional Committee (HCS OPC), also questions the number of travel tests required. According to the British government’s website, day 2 tests are “designed to help identify any potentially harmful variants of Covid-19 at the earliest opportunity.” What Evans, who works as a Pathology Support Services Manager in the NHS, finds unclear is why travelers paying to be “released” from self-isolation are charged for an additional compulsory test.
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“If you’ve tested negative [on a day five test,] there is no need for a day eight test,” Evans told The Nation. “It seems a bit odd.”
What is crystal clear is that over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, companies like Randox are set to make a pretty penny off the back of yet another Conservative government scheme. FitzGerald was already listed as the 475th richest person in the UK in 2020 with a net worth of £255 ($361) million. Randox, which recently transferred its ownership to an offshore entity registered on the Isle of Man, a notorious tax haven, showed earnings of £218 ($309) million from January 2019 to June 2020, compared to the £118 ($167) million it made the previous year. Since its most recent tax filings only take into account the first few months of the pandemic, it’s likely that Randox’s profits skyrocketed in the months that followed. Add to that how lucrative the “test to travel” scheme is proving to be, and it seems fair to say that for those with “chums” in all the right government buildings, a mass death event has had a shiny silver—or perhaps even gold—lining.