THE difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that, in a free society, the government is accountable to the public for its spending of public money on temporary measures to deal with a crisis. Yet we have witnessed during the last year how often the Government has used the excuse of the pandemic to make secret deals and deny accountability.
A major case in point is the NHS Test and Trace system (NHST&T). It was launched in May 2020 with four aims: ‘to test, trace, contain and enable’ with the purpose of achieving an overall reduction of virus infection, thus in theory preventing further lockdowns. It has been allocated a budget of £37billion over two years. (To put the sum in context, that is more than twice the £17billion spent on PPE.)
Under the scheme, individuals with an Android or iPhone can download an NHS App which alerts users to other users nearby who have tested positive for the virus. It also lets you know the level of risk in your postcode, creates a QR code (a machine-readable optical label) for venues, helps you check your symptoms, book a test and tells you to self-isolate if positive. Because our technologically-impaired but technocratically enthusiastic government proved incapable of creating its own app, it is run with the help of Apple and Google.
It has hardly been an unrivalled success. By December 2020 the National Audit Office pointed out that it was ‘achieving too few test results delivered within 24 hours and too few contacts of infected people being reached and told to self-isolate’.
In March the Public Accounts Committee said that despite ‘unimaginable’ spending, the impact of NHS Test and Trace was still unclear. They pointed out that it was set up on the basis it would help prevent future lockdowns but since its creation there had been two more, and warned that the taxpayer could not be treated like an ‘ATM machine’.
The committee chose not to question the cost-effectiveness of the Government’s decision to create a centralised testing system, the Lighthouse laboratories, to undertake analysis of test samples – a parallel system which by-passed the existing decentralised network of NHS labs – though by last October there were reports of dangerous and chaotic working practices. A damning Panorama investigation was broadcast last month.
In February the Good Law Project won a High Court admission from government lawyers that it had breached the law by persistently failing to publish details of Covid-19 contracts. It has been less successful with forcing public disclosure over the Test and Trace scheme. Its Freedom of Information request for details of meetings held by the head of the scheme, Baroness Dido Harding, has been refused on ‘grounds of cost’ (that would be £600).
Baroness Harding, married to a senior Tory and granted her peerage by David Cameron in 2014, has a dubious management record: in the 2015 TalkTalk scandal 4million customers risked loss of privacy in spite of warnings to management of cyber security weaknesses. She has proved an even less safe pair of hands in her latest role.
Whatever the chumocracy at play, as former Treasury official Lord Macpherson tweeted in March, Test and Trace ‘wins the prize for the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time’, adding, ‘The extraordinary thing is that nobody in the government seems surprised or shocked.’
Can the expenditure be explained as old-fashioned gravy train riding? Or are we witnessing something darker, given that Test and Trace has had no discernible health benefits?
Since last November the NHS has been in discussions with US billionaire and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s Palantir corporation with a view to analysing the NHS Covid ‘data store’. In December the NHS signed a two-year £23million contract with Palantir, and it is only as a result of legal action that the Government has agreed not to extend this contract without public consultation.
Thiel’s background does not inspire confidence. He is apparently not in favour of an open press, for example, particularly if it attacks him. Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, driving it into bankruptcy in 2016. Gawker was a gossipy New York magazine against whom Thiel had a personal grudge.
Thiel is also a leading light in the transhumanist movement, a key part of technocracy with its belief in using science and technology to prolong human life beyond natural limits.
Not surprisingly, Thiel is a major player in the World Economic Forum, being a partner of the Founder Fund.
While we are assured that there will be no mission creep beyond the December 2020 Palantir contract, what will stop this government from taking the small step to integrate everything with a vaccine ‘passport’? We’ve seen how Big Tech not only censors so-called Covid misinformation but is also pushing vaccination.
Former Clinton adviser Dr Naomi Wolf warns: ‘It’s not about the virus. It’s not about the vaccine. It’s about your data’ and the creation of integrated platforms, because ‘any other functionality can be loaded on to that platform’ – health data, Paypal data etc. Wolf argues that if the vaccine passport plans roll out, this is the end of liberty in the West. Here is Dr Wolf on Fox News talking to Tucker Carlson in February.
As we have seen, the NHS Test and Trace app is run with the help of Apple and Google. There is an agreement that location data is not shared. That data stays within the phone. Recently Apple and Google blocked the Government’s plans for updating the app because the Government wanted users to upload logs of venue check-ins and to do so would have violated the companies’ privacy terms. But should we feel so reassured that Silicon Valley is ‘protecting’ our privacy? After all, as soon as the app has alerted you to the risk of the virus, you are obliged to put yourself under house arrest for ten days, asked to sign into the NHS website and give all your personal information as well as that of people you have been in contact with. Somewhere all this private information is being stored. At what point is your privacy protected?
It could all point to the creation of a surveillance society, with Test and Trace just the beginning of an excuse to monitor us all.