Serco van. Photo: Philafrenzy / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / CC BY-SA 4.0, licence and original photo linked at bottom of article Serco van. Photo: Philafrenzy / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / CC BY-SA 4.0, licence and original photo linked at bottom of article

Protesters gathered in Wandsworth to demand no more public contracts be given to Serco, reports Peter Bird

A large crowd assembled outside Wandsworth Town Hall on Tuesday lunch time to demand that no further contract is given to private firms, such as Serco, to track and trace the spread of the corona virus. Instead of that, local teams should be financed to do the work. There were similar events at other town halls up and down the country.

The demonstration was called by the campaign group We Own It, who are compiling a petition, and the initiative has the support of a number of organisations and groups including the trade unions PCS and Unite; the New Economics Foundation; Keep Our NHS Public; and Health Campaigns together.

Some local authorities, including Blackburn and Calderdale, have already established their local schemes after deciding that the national, privatised, schemes were inadequate, and that their populations would be better served by their own teams with knowledge of local communities.

While Boris Johnson was promising that the service would be world beating, The Guardian newspaper, back in June, reported that Tony Prestedge, the chief operating officer of the scheme, told staff that it would take three or four months (i.e. until September or October) for the scheme to become fully operational. In the meantime the lockdown, instituted to stem the spread of the coronavirus, has been progressively relaxed, pubs and restaurants are open, and people are being encouraged to return to work; and schools are meant to become fully operational at the beginning of September.

Amid anxieties that a new wave of the virus is forthcoming, and while  the R rate is close to one in most regions, it is said that only 72.4 percent of close contacts of people who have tested positive for the virus were reached in the week ending 29th July, down from 76.2% the previous week.

In recent months, ministers have used special powers, acquired ostensibly due to the pandemic, to bypass normal tendering and award a string of contracts to private companies and management consultants without open competition. This has, at times, gone spectacularly wrong, for example the government has recently admitted that 50 million masks bought as part of a £252 million medical supplies contract awarded to an investment firm have been deemed unsuitable for use by NHS workers.

The CEO of Serco is quoted as saying that he hopes the contract will, ‘cement the position of the private sector,’ in our NHS. Eighty- four percent of respondents to a recent YouGov survey of public opinion will hope he is wrong, since they wanted the NHS to be run by the public sector.

The conclusion that belief in the merits of privatisation is an erroneous dogma is irresistible. Serco stand to get an extended contract in spite of innumerable failures, including being fined £23 million after admitting responsibility for fraud over its electronic tagging scandal, in which it charged the Ministry of Justice for tagging people who were either dead, in jail, or had left the country. This is one of many examples.

Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, needs to scrap Serco, and other failed contracts, and give the £528 million he has to spend to local authorities and Public Health England teams instead.

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