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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Devi Sridhar

Labour is right: billions were lost to Covid fraud, and the public deserve a reckoning

Rachel Reeves
‘Rachel Reeves noted the estimated cost of Covid fraud is more than £7bn.’ Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Within the world of global health aid and financing, corruption has long been a problem, from £200m from the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and malaria being suspended in Zambia due to concerns about money for specific projects lining the pockets of officials, to the Global Fund suspending all grants to Uganda after discovering questionable spending and contracting by the ministry of health.

These corruption scandals are often dismissed as a problem that happens “over there”, and are even used as an argument against foreign aid. But are we really so different in Britain? If we look at the Covid-19 crisis, we see a similar pattern of public moneys, supposedly to tackle the pandemic, being extracted for private gain. A recent report by Transparency International UK says that a fifth of the Covid contracts awarded by the government contained red flags indicating possible corruption.

It is also well known that close contacts of Tory politicians made immense profits through this crisis, while the rest of the country suffered sickness, deaths and economic pain. The New York Times analysed 1,200 contracts worth nearly $22bn and found that roughly half went to companies run by friends and associates of Conservative party politicians, or with no experience in that area.

The more you dig, the more sketchy it looks. Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, refers to the “vast financial rewards you could reap if you had a minister looking out for your interests”.

Little has been done to investigate this. It may be that people don’t want to reopen memories of that painful time. And Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, seems eager to bury this story. Conservative peer Theodore Agnew, former minister of state at the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, quit in January 2022 in protest at Sunak’s failure to tackle massive fraud during the Covid pandemic. He said: “The failure of government to tackle fraud felt so egregious, and the need for remedy so urgent, that I felt my only option left was to smash some crockery to get people to take notice.”

Thankfully, Labour has seized on this key issue, with the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, announcing that a Labour government would appoint a new Covid corruption commissioner to track the billions lost in waste, fraud and flawed contracts, and try to return this to the government for spending on health and education. Reeves noted the estimated cost of Covid fraud is more than £7bn. Clawing this back seems an obvious step to take, especially given the shortfalls in funding for the NHS and for the state education sector.

The commissioner will have their work cut out. Transparency International UK, which often reports on worldwide corruption, turned its focus away from foreign states and back towards the UK in 2020, noting it was the year that “corruption took centre stage” in Britain. Its annual report points to the British Virgin Islands as the overseas territory of choice for those setting up companies to hide the proceeds of corruption.

The work of identifying shady contracts and tracking down where the money went will be immense. But the reward will go beyond financial restitution. Digging deeper into the process of fraud will help us reform the system and clean up public life and contract procurement – an area where corruption surely exists beyond just Covid issues. Identifying who abused the public trust and enriched themselves during a time of national crisis will go a long way towards restoring faith in government. And it will help people process and move on from that time.

It’s difficult to overstate how much Britain suffered in 2020. The government was slow with getting PPE to frontline workers, slow to prepare hospitals for patients and slow to build the public health infrastructure necessary to contain coronavirus without lockdown measures. It wasn’t simply incompetence that explained the poor response. It was deliberate profiteering during a crisis enabled by the UK government, similar to what happens during war. The Good Law Project estimated that more than £4 in every £5 spent on PPE was wasted or “lost”.

The time for a reckoning is overdue. Britain has many strong qualities that help us deal with issues such as corruption: an independent media, NGOs such as the Good Law Project, independent academics protected by free speech laws, and a multiparty democracy with electoral choice over who represents us and the policies they promote. Thanks to this, the story of Covid corruption hasn’t faded away. Labour is promising to finally finish it.

In Uganda, people were eventually held to account over misused funds, including a government official: I hope the same benchmark can be used in the UK too.

  • Prof Devi Sridhar is chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh

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