Further evidence has emerged that the British government operated a “VIP” fast-track process for favoured companies, leading to accusations that ministers misled the public about billions of pounds of Covid-19 testing contracts.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has previously denied operating any VIP process for companies referred by ministers for possible Covid contracts.
In June, when it emerged that civil servants had passed on referrals labelled “fast track” from ministers, a government spokesperson said:
These claims are completely false – there was no high priority lane for testing suppliers. All offers of testing went through the same robust assurance checks and there was no separate ‘fast track process’.Advertisement
However, internal emails between DHSC civil servants, discussing the Rapid Testing Consortium (RTC), a group of companies led by York-based Abingdon Health, which was awarded huge government contracts without a competitive tender, did describe the process as “the VIP route”. The then health minister, Lord Bethell, was described by officials as a “sponsor” of the consortium.
The DHSC disclosed the June 2020 emails during a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project (GLP), which argues there was “apparent bias” in the award of the contracts to Abingdon Health, and that the government “failed to undertake any transparent or lawful process”. The DHSC is defending the case, arguing that the emergency of the pandemic justified it making direct contract awards.
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More than 100 countries face cuts to public spending on health, education and social protection as the Covid-19 pandemic compounds already high levels of debt, a new report says.
The International Monetary Fund believes that 35 to 40 countries are “debt distressed” – defined as when a country is experiencing difficulties in servicing its debt, such as when there are arrears or debt restructuring.
However, this figure is a “gross underestimation”, according to the study, led by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, based at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Unsustainable rising debt levels have seen inequality widening between high-income countries and those in the global south, researchers said.
The report said:
We compiled a list of countries that are labelled as debt-distressed across a number of criteria, and estimate around 100 countries will have to reduce budget deficits in this period, even though the majority are still facing the third or fourth wave of the [Covid-19] pandemic.
Furthermore, the ability to cancel this debt is complicated because many of these countries have taken on debt under non-concessional terms from private lenders. The trends in [the UN’s] Financing for Development (FFD) were entirely insufficient to meet the SDGs [sustainable development goals] even prior to Covid-19. Now there is a full-blown crisis.Advertisement
Countries falling into debt distress include Tunisia, which has seen political upheaval, as well as Zambia and Ghana, said Faiza Shaheen, lead author of the report, which is being launched to coincide with a UN general assembly meeting of world leaders on Thursday.
Zambia was the first African county to default on debt last year during the pandemic and now has to allocate 44% of its annual government revenue to creditors, Shaheen said. Ghana spends about 37% of its national budget on debt interest payments.
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Report anti-vax protests, schools told
The government has asked schools in England to report any anti-vaccination intimidation or protests, with ministers advising headteachers to ignore legal threats claiming they would be liable for injuries to pupils occurring during vaccinations, writes Richard Adams, the Guardian’s education editor.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, told Alex Burghart, the minister filling in for education secretary Nadhim Zahawi:
Shockingly, there are reports that some schools are experiencing anti-vaccination protests. What action is being taken to ensure that no school faces threats and intimidation?
Burghart replied that anti-vaccination protests at schools would be “totally unacceptable,” and urged schools to report any incidents to the Department for Education.
“I’d be grateful if any school that was facing intimidation would let the department know about it, so we can follow it up,” Burghart said. He added:
I want to make absolutely clear to any headteachers and teachers, contrary to what you have been told, legal liability does not rest with schools at all, it rests with the health service and those providing vaccinations.AdvertisementAdvertisement
Some schools have already started hosting school-aged immunisation teams to vaccinate pupils aged 12 to 15, following last week’s approval by the chief medical officers. So far no protests have been reported.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Pupils have endured enough disruption to their education in recent months, so there is absolutely no place for angry protests outside school gates.”
Green accused the government of treating children and young people “as an afterthought” despite Covid continuing to spread, noting that 122,000 children were out of school last week.
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