When I heard the term ‘whistle-blower’ and the ‘Department of Health & Social Care in the same sentence, I could not help but laugh as a former test & trace employee, big hero but nothing new and grossly misguided. A labour peer has made a call for an inquiry into the amount being spent on test and trace staff through drinks, snacks, and meals throughout the day, something that NHS frontline staff do not receive, calling it ‘waste’. At first thought, you would say it is shocking, unfair and an ‘unnecessary’ expense, yet the grievances are misdirected and have far worse implications for working people than we think.
Sodexo, the French multinational responsible for several test centers seem to be deflecting blame, whilst those working on the ground in test and trace centers are taking the flack. Sodexo refuses to disclose their operational costs because they know the government has given them a blank cheque to spend taxpayers’ funds.
Awarding private contracts for government projects in the UK goes to the lowest bidder which often becomes an endless paper trail – there is no real competitiveness when the money is being funneled continually as if it were a vital gas pipeline. Other methods for awarding contracts are based on close connections but this is an avenue they do not want you to know about.
We saw mismanagement under Tony Blair who outsourced the creation of the NHS’ IT system back in 2006, costing the government £20 billion more than expected. The Olympics was yet another faux pax in 2012 – needing military intervention after government outsourcing saw SERCO, the company in charge, fall foul of security standards – and with a heavy sense of déjà vu, we are back again with Sodexo.
Private interest will always do what is in their best interests, make money, so the fingers must be pointed to our contract tendering process, which is in the hands of the government. Having spare cash in the hands of middle management is a recipe for free food and drink, it is no secret that contractors offer perks to their employees. Yet the headlines are coming from the wrong angle, keeping their eyes away from misappropriation of funds in government and instead of demonizing something that everybody, public and private should be guaranteed in the workplace – free or at the very least, subsidized staff food and drink. Public sector, private sector, all companies should try to provide a baseline environment for staff; especially those that can afford it.
Although this seems utopian, I urge you to consider how the furlough scheme suddenly appeared when the pandemic arrived. This has arguably been the largest nationwide public expenditure since the foundation of the NHS in 1946 and yet 10 years ago, we were told cuts are in fact mandatory by the austerity poster-boy chancellor, George Osborne.
This mass reversal in social spending has proven one thing – it is that when the economy is threatened the government will act, when people are threatened, that is less of an issue.
Small businesses would be more sensitive to such changes, but fulfilling basic needs is unavoidable in a country as wealthy as ours and nevertheless, the relative income of a company would be considered in the level of participation in such a program. Some will still call it a tedious and unwarranted expense, but we, the test & trace staff have felt the effects first-hand of the public backlash towards basic needs as test sites have made enormous cutbacks on staff expenditure.
During a 13-hour shift, with 17 staff, we now have 15 sandwiches, and the occasional snack, which is significantly less than the weeks and months before the heroic whistle-blower complained about having too much food. None of us working at our site are bothered about the DHSC stopping free food and drink; we are all more than capable of going to a supermarket or pre-preparing food and had little regard for it when we signed up. The main concerns rested largely on not being offered the vaccine until April despite its approval 6 months earlier – surely encountering up to 1000 people a day warranted the protection, right?
All the jobs were temporary, and the pay barely peaking above the living wage, so when it comes to saving for the alleged economic fallout post-pandemic, however fast or slow it arrives – cutting back on expenses should really be best avoided for the staff’s sake. The issue is not greedy, entitled workers, the issue is greedy contractors and the government’s inability to regulate the contract bidding process – not accounting for overspending.
Cases may be rising again since the arrival of the omicron variant and test sites will start filling up again, but underfeeding staff will be a stain on the legacy of the pandemic response, epitomizing that post-pandemic dystopia that sees the wealthy increase their capital and the worse-off fighting over scraps. Sodexo’s share price will be flying high when the zero-hour contracts that we were given are eventually terminated but we must understand where the real wastage is going.
Some time ago, the government defeated a labour proposal on opening a lobbying inquiry, in response to David Cameron’s dealings with Greensill Capital, continuing to tell us a story of a political system lacking in financial transparency with no desire to improve. If the lobbying and underhand dealings remain a secret, will we continue to see exploitation on the ground as companies are allowed to operate on skeletal resources – only when it suits those in positions of power.
When you follow the money, you usually find the answers but with rampant levels of cronyism clearly still at the heart of government, that is going to be an increasingly difficult trope to follow. It is not about punishment for those involved, I mean, who specifically bears the brunt? Is it specific politicians? Dodgy contractors? Or a mixture of both?
What we do know is that cuts in basic expenses for those on the ground are never a recipe for cohesion – not just at our test and trace sites but across all industries and business sectors, nobody should have to go without lunch just because those at the top cannot manage their money.
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