The government’s refusal to commandeer the production and distribution of the personal protective equipment so vitally needed by hospitals and care homes, if necessary by bringing the manufacture of PPE under public direction for the duration of the health crisis, can only be ‘justified’ by the argument that (a) the rights of property in the means of production must be respected at all costs, and (b) in any case the best value for taxpayers’ money is best secured by free competition on the open market.
No capitalist government will ever dare state baldly that, when push comes to shove, the property rights of an exploiting minority must trump public health every time. So instead, bourgeois spin doctors stake everything on the assertion that free competition will always, by the alchemy of free market economics, serve the best interests of society.
Yet the shambolic mess that this government has made of the provision of PPE has not only shown what a disaster it has been to leave supply in the hands of the private sector in the first place, but is also exposing the way that monopoly capitalism effectively rigs the market, making a mockery of the very notion of ‘free competition’.
A pressure-group calling itself the Good Law Project is in the process of exposing some instructive examples of market-rigging and cronyism in the ‘competitive’ tendering of contracts for the supply of PPE.
In one case, the government awarded a £32m contract for the supply of surgical gowns to a pest control firm called PestFix without advertising the contract or opening it up to competition, despite there being many other companies willing and able to do the job.
PestFix doesn’t actually make surgical gowns, and simply undertook to order them from China. The company itself has assets of only £18,000, and was given a deposit worth 75 percent of the contract to make the purchase. Worse still, at the last reckoning, only half of the gowns ordered have yet to get to Britain, and those that have arrived are reportedly stuck in a warehouse in Daventry.
In an article in the Guardian, George Monbiot cited numerous similar cases unearthed by the GLP, including “the employment agency with net assets of £623 that was awarded an £18m government contract to supply face masks; the confectionery wholesaler that according to the GLP was given a £100m contract to supply PPE; and the £250m channelled through a ‘family office’ registered in Mauritius, specialising in currency trading, offshore property and private equity, also to supply protective medical equipment. Altogether, billions of pounds’ worth of contracts appear to have been granted, often to surprising companies, without competition.” (When secret coronavirus contracts are awarded without competition, it’s deadly serious by George Monbiot, The Guardian, 15 July 2020)
Monbiot’s conclusion, that “transparent, competitive tendering is a crucial defence against cronyism and corruption” and is “essential to integrity in public life and public trust in politics” feeds the illusion that capitalism can be cleaned up and rejigged to serve the interests of society at large.
On the contrary, monopoly, imperialist capitalism is incapable of changing its moribund and parasitical nature, and must be overthrown. The best possible political outcome from the deadly farce over the supply of PPE will be precisely what Monbiot fears: the further erosion of public trust in rancid bourgeois politics and the exposure of the complete absence of any integrity in public life.