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The Tories’ ‘chumocracy’ over Covid contracts is destroying public trust | Conservatives

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Under the cover of an emergency, the government awarded £18bn in coronavirus-related contracts during the first six months of the pandemic, most with no competitive tendering processes. Meanwhile contracts totalling £1.5bn have gone to companies with connections to the Conservative party. Call it a “chumocracy” or straightforward incompetence: it’s clear there’s been a woeful lack of transparency when it comes to how taxpayers’ money is spent.

The more information we have about these contracts, the more complicated it becomes to piece them all together. As the junior health minister Lord Bethell recently told the House of Lords, the government relied on “informal arrangements” to fulfil urgent needs for PPE. One such informal arrangement was a phone call in April between Lord Bethell and Meller Designs, a company owned by a prominent Conservative party donor who has given more than £63,000 to the party. The company, which usually sells home and fashion accessories to retailers such as Marks & Spencer, was later awarded PPE contracts worth £163m.

This is by no means the only Covid contract with a whiff of cronyism about it. But it can be difficult to grasp the significance of these contracts unless you step back to see the bigger picture. As a political scientist with a background in maths, my first instinct was to start building a dataset. After all, even the most complex networks can be distilled to a list of nodes and the connections between them. A few lines of code are all that’s needed to bring that dataset to life, like a hi-tech version of the evidence board in Line of Duty. The result is an interactive graph that, tongue-in-cheek, I’ve named My Little Crony.

With this visualisation, we can explore a whole web of connections at once. Take, for example, Lord Feldman, a wealthy donor and former chair of the Conservative party who was elevated to the House of Lords by his old Oxford chum, David Cameron. Feldman began serving as an unpaid adviser to the Department of Health in March, and in that capacity attended meetings with a firm called Oxford Nanopore, which has been awarded government contracts for Covid testing. Shortly after Feldman left his role in government, his PR firm, Tulchan Communications, had taken on Oxford Nanopore as a paying client.

If we zig-zag in another direction we find George Pascoe-Watson, another Department of Health adviser who worked with Lord Bethell. Pascoe-Watson is the director of the lobbying firm Portland Communications, whose clients include Boston Consulting Group, which has won several large government contracts during the pandemic.

But are these links evidence of corrupt behaviour, or do they have a more benign explanation? Cronyism, after all, is what happens when friends and associates benefit from being close to one another. It flourishes when there’s a lack of transparency. The chief intention of ministers may not have been to hand out contracts to companies with links to their party, or to appoint their friends in senior advisory roles. Indeed, emergency Covid-19 regulations do allow the government to ditch usual competitive tendering practices. Is it possible that Tory-connected firms were winning contracts not due to cronyism, but simply because government officials had better access to information about these firms?

A recent report by the National Audit Office suggests not. The report confirmed the existence of a “high-priority lane” for suppliers referred by senior politicians and officials, and found that companies with a political referral were 10 times more likely to end up winning a government contract than those without. The government’s rationale for this two-tier system was that companies referred by politicians had been “pre-sifted” and were therefore more credible. While it’s understandable that the government would want to streamline procurement during an emergency, this system flouts the most basic anti-corruption principles. Politically connected firms are supposed to receive more scrutiny, not less.

The government’s reasoning about “credible” supplies is especially hard to swallow given that many large PPE contracts were awarded to firms with seemingly no obvious experience in that sector. Contracts were handed out to companies including a pest control business and a confectionary wholesaler. It would be tempting to root for this plucky band of misfits were it not for the fact that many companies with actual expertise in PPE offered help to the government during the early stage of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the government continues to fail even the most basic test of transparency: publishing the details of contracts awarded in a timely manner. In its investigation, the National Audit Office found that only one in four contracts awarded up to July were published within 90 days.

And in the scramble to acquire ventilators and face masks, ministers seem to have forgotten about another scarce commodity: trust. Unlike PPE, trust cannot be outsourced. It must be actively maintained through transparency and accountability. Data from YouGov show that the government’s approval rating on the issue of Covid has more than halved, falling from 72% in March to just 32% in October.

It’s remarkable that the government has managed to squander so much goodwill so quickly – all while paying huge sums to PR firms to work on their messaging strategy. Successfully containing the virus and eventually rolling out a vaccine will both depend on people trusting that politicians are acting in their best interests. Yet you’d be forgiven for thinking the government had treated this crisis as an opportunity to award valuable contracts to its friends.

A simple first step would be to publish contracts in a timely manner and properly document the procurement process. As more information about these contracts enters the public domain, calls for a full public inquiry will only become louder. The government might hope that a successful vaccine will deflect attention from this scandal. But with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, already floating the possibility of tax hikes and a public sector pay freeze to reduce the deficit, people will soon have a pressing interest in finding out exactly who has been profiting from this pandemic.

• Sophie Hill is a PhD student in government at Harvard University


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Tech investor Tim Draper says digital health care will be ‘almost free’

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People wait in line to get a 15-minute rapid Covid-19 test on November 24, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Andy Manis | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The use of technology is going to make health care “almost free around the world,” according to venture capitalist Tim Draper.

“Health care is completely going digital,” he told CNBC’s Dan Murphy during a panel discussion at FinTech Abu Dhabi, which was held virtually this year.

“That’s going to create health care that is almost free around the world,” said the founder and managing partner of early-stage venture capital firm, Draper Associates.

Ibrahim Ajami of Mubadala Investment Company, one of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds, said the coronavirus has led to “probably the most significant acceleration of technology … we will witness in our lives.” The role of technology in health care has changed, he said.

“Everything from clinical trials to drug discovery, to the transformation of health care systems and even telemedicine and personalized health — many of us are going to go through this entire Covid pandemic without ever seeing a doctor physically,” said Ajami, who is head of ventures at Mubadala.

Draper said artificial intelligence and data will help to create a “really good AI doctor” and design drugs that are unique to the person who is taking it.

Finally, we’re going to have a way of doing health care a lot cheaper.

Tim Draper

Draper Associates

He pointed to CloudMedx, a health tech company that Draper Associates invested in, which uses medical data to “do a better job of diagnosing your disease than the average doctor.” The firm announced last year that its clinical AI assistant outperformed human doctors on a modified version of the United States Medical Licensing Exam in 2019.

“You start combining that with other pieces of data – your genetic history, your blood test results, your Fitbit results, what airplane seat you sat on, the food you ate – all that data is going to be available, and that data — that’s going to create a really good AI doctor,” Draper told CNBC.

Technology also helps design medicine that is specific to the recipient, and robots are even being used in surgeries, he added.

In future, artificial intelligence will diagnose and develop the specific medicine required, he predicted. “That’s going to be a fabulous place because I think most of that can be done with very low costs.”

The early internet investor added that medical costs have been “crazy high” for many years. “Finally, we’re going to have a way of doing health care a lot cheaper.”


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Investors try to gauge if retail’s stay-at-home trends will stick

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Investors try to gauge if retail’s stay-at-home trends will stick