Covid tests & the New Kleptocracy

Paul Cotterill
16 min readJan 28, 2021


In this post, I piece together what we know and what we can reasonably conjecture about the government’s approach to opening up the hospitality, travel and entertainment economy as and when the second wave finally subsides, what this tells us about the wider, darker ambitions of the Johnson regime, and how the left might best start to work in opposition to those ambitions.

  1. Back in November

Back in November, as the second Covid wave really started to take off, two closely related draft Statutory Instruments (SIs)were published, to absolutely no publicity.

On the 23rd, there came the (Draft) Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) (№2) Regulations 2020

And the 25th came the (Draft) Health Protection (Coronavirus, Testing Requirements and Standards) (England) Regulations 2020.

They went largely unnoticed by the general public and the politicians, but have generated, or are associated with a flurry of activity from both the established and the very new ‘testing industry’.

As such, I contend that a reading of them in context may give a pretty good indication of where our kleptocratic, increasingly authoritarian government is looking to go beyond this awful second wave. And as you might by now expect, that is not going to be a good place.

2. The Instruments

The first SI seems innocuous enough. What it does is add to the list of health related activities which are exempt from operating under regulation by the Care Quality Commission (CQC)the following:

Any activity which —

(a)is carried on for the purpose of testing for the presence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (“SARS-CoV-2”) in an individual, or for the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, or

(b)is carried on for the purpose of processing, analysing or reporting the results of a test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in an individual, or for the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2.”.

Essentially it gives free rein to anybody to get involved in the testing industry, whether that’s taking the swabs or analyzing them in the laboratory.

Given that the processes used in laboratories being used already also come under the regulation of the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS), and that taking the swabs involves shoving a stick up your nose and wiggling it for a bit, and has been widely practiced by an untrained public since the late Spring, this would seem a rationalization of the current rules.

Except that’s not there all is to it.

Where it gets interesting is that, having set out plans to dispense with that established regulatory process with one Statutory Instrument [1], the government then sets out plans to push anybody involved anywhere in the process, from swabbing through to laboratory analysis, through a complex three stage process of accreditation, without which they will not legally be able to do what many have been doing for years, and one clinical aspect of which — as noted — the public has been entrusted with in testing centres up an down the land.

The three stage process involves: i) self-accreditation (as a holding process for those already testing); ii) a brand new UKAS accreditation process completed within four weeks of self-accreditation; iii) meeting ISO standards for the two different kinds of test (lab-based PCR and lateral flow). Failure to move though the stages leads to it being illegal to be part of the testing service after the cut-off point.

Stage two is where it gets complicated. The required ‘gap analysis’ form, for example, has around 170 rows to be completed with explanation, document links, action plans and timetable across a variety of technical, training, management and governance requirements.

This, remember, is for legal permission to stick a swab up someone’s nose other than your own.

Then there are the application fees, which are several thousand pounds across the three stages.

3. So what’s going on?

So what’s going on? Why has the government chosen to publish draft secondary legislation to replace one form of regulation which was working pretty well with another brand new, forbidding one?

The answer, I think, lies buried at section 3 of the Statutory Instrument, and involves what the new regime is not about:

An applicable [needing UKAS accreditation] test is a test for the detection of coronavirus which is —

(a) provided in a single end-to-end testing service (whether or not the provider arranges with another person (“X”) for X to provide one or more elements of the service on their behalf);

(b) provided in the course of a business;

(c ) not a test provided or administered under the National Health Service Act 2006(3);

(d) not a test provided by a person (P) solely to —

(i) P’s employees;

(ii) persons contracted to provide services to P; or

(iii) both of the above; and

(e) administered on or after 1st January 2021.

What this boils down to is that the government is not bothered about standards when it comes to protecting public health through screening in workplaces and schools, but is very bothered about creating a route to profit, for firms who have the resources to jump through the new legal hoops, even though that route to profit may be one that both runs roughshod over both public health measures and the civic freedoms of ordinary people, while charging us for that non-privilege.

4. A scenario

This, then, is what I think the government is up to, and may do next.

As the second wave eases, and Tory politicians clamour for the opening up of the economy, the government will bring these draft Statutory Instruments to the House of Commons and get them passed, along with another one (which may or may not come as a draft first) which imposes restrictions on public venues such as theatres, restaurants and, if it’s really going for it, pubs and bars.

Under these new regulations, those managing these “undertakings”, as they are called in the legislation, will be obliged to allow entry only to those who have a negative same-day (or last 24 hours test) for Covid, which the new range of test providers will provide to people’s mobile phones.

This will be cash cow for those providers who have had the resources to jump thtough the accrediation hoops. There, to be shared around this new cartel will be a tidy margin on a lateral flow rapid test (which will displace PCR laboratory testing quickly) which will cost the provider roughly £20 per unit; at the moment commercial tests for going abroad, for example, are towards £150 a go with a 100% profit margin, and we might expect to see the same kind of margin, but with a massively increased number of test throughput.

And, again very roughly, we might be looking at something like a £4bn annual commercial turnover, for as long as the regulations last [2].

And how do I know this will happen? Well, I don’t exactly, but there are some clues.

First, Dido Harding told us. Back in September, perhaps in an unguarded moment, outlined the thinking. According to the Independent:

People with no coronavirus symptoms will have to pay for ‘Operation Moonshot’ tests, the head of the government’s testing programme has said.

Dido Harding told a meeting of business leaders that not all the proposed 15-minute checks would be made available for free on the NHS.

Individuals who wanted a test to show they could resume a “normal life” without spreading the virus would be charged, a webinar hosted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) was told.

Second, there’s the way in which and when the two preparatory Statutory Instruments have come into being. These are two of the very few of all Coronavirus Instruments to have been published in draft form (17 of 355 to date); normally they are “laid before parliament’ and come into law shortly afterwards, with such scrutiny as there is taking place retrospectively through ‘made affirmative’ or ‘made negative’ procedures.

The reasons for this, I suggest, are that the government wanted to avoid early scrutiny by MPs, while also giving a big ‘heads up’ to testing providers in the loop that it was serious about going down this cash cow route on their behalf. It has worked. As of now, 331 organizations and individuals have smelled the money and have gone through the relatively straightforward stage 1 accreditation process (self-declaration), and they range from single person private GPs through to the big players like Boots plc. More will follow, most notably those with lateral flow tests under their own control such that they can run both the testing and results processing aspects of the organization.

But, as noted above the second and third stages of the accreditation process are strangely complex, going well beyond what is realistically needed to accredit a small organization that just does the testing (remember it’s the same process as the public is doing to itself in screening centres).

I suspect that this is also deliberate, because the government knows that a great many of those smaller organizations will drop out when faced with stage 2, leaving the field clear for what we will justifiably be able to call a cartel, because they have been able to buy their way into an unfair system which now legally excludes smaller competitors.

Third, setting up this legal requirement, and publishing it as an essential tool in the ‘fight against Covid’ provides perfect cover for the biggest single failure by government — the failure to establish an effect Test, Trace & Isolate service.

However much Indie Sage and Labour bang on with demands that Test & Trace be sorted out, it is simply not going to happen, and very certainly not going to happen in time for the opening of venues.

A system was never developed to use the contact data dutifully collected by pubs and restaurants in the summer and earlier Autumn, and will not be now and, as importantly, legal and rule changes have made it possible for the private call centre providers to quietly reduce their levels of service while still claiming the same outputs. Any suggestion that Serco, Sitel et al. will now decide voluntarily to improve staffing resources such that they can do proper, Australia-style contact tracing [3], is just magical thinking, I’m afraid.

In this context, a test & release requirement imposed on venues and customers will make perfect sense as an alternative.

It will not matter much to this government that it will be a very poor replacement for a proper Test & Trace operation, both because the lateral flow tests are not yet accurate enough [4] and because you can contract Covid in the hours between your test and entering a venue.

And nor, of course, will it matter to this government that at the core of the replacement will be a deep inequality, with those who can afford it able to resume the ‘normal life’ Dido Harding promises, while those on low incomes — who have suffered more from the lockdowns in the first place — have to wait on the government lifting restrictions further. Even those who can pull together the money for the odd test will be galled by the three for two test offers that spring up soon enough as the cartel’s marketing departments battle it out, but that they can’t afford [5].

What will matter much more to this government is that they have that replacement, not least because it’s one whereby, as and when virus rates again, the blame can be pinned on somebody else.

Pinning the blame on others for non-compliance, is increasingly, what this government does.

Fourth, and of course most conjectural, this all fits with what the government does, and what it intends to do, but in a wider political sense. It’s to that wider politics I now move.

5. The New Kleptocracy

In an earlier piece [6], I’ve described the Johnson regime as the New Kleptocracy. By this, I mean that the prime motivation behind government, and the governance systems it is developing, is no longer the development of the country’s economic well-being, at least in the short term; instead, the prime motivation, to which as much policy as possible is subjugated, is to foster elite control of the state’s resources, with a view to the building of a new hi-tech hi tech empire (in its imperial sense). This is, in short, the Cummings vision.

Cummings may be (officially) gone, but the doctrine seems to hold fast: short term pain for the population is worth it if, in Tory elite Danny Kruger MP’s words, we can build a “better elite” able once again to establish Britain in its rightful neo-imperial position. To achieve this, the elite needs to be freed up from current restraints on its resources and power.

This is the elite dream, but from the point of view of the non-elite, what it should look like is corruption and plundering of the state coffers for financial game. To us, it should look like the government ignoring or changing the rules when it suits.

This is most obvious in relation to Brexit. The disastrous consequences for the real economy are now obvious to pretty well everybody willing to take a look, the regime , but the regime has got what it wanted from the Deal: an arrangement with the EU that, because State Aid is now to be authorized retrospectively, the UK government will cheat, and the EU will look the other way as long as the cheating is merely for the purposes of handing state cash to crony firms and organizations (such as the Cummings-devised ARPA), and not for the purposes of unfair competition. [7]

But what’s more important for purposes here is that the pandemic has turned out to be pretty well the perfect environment to develop these new kleptocratic processes and systems.

Initially, it was all about using the cover of a dire emergency simply to steal money through the kind of procurement corruption that is now starting to go through the courts: eye-watering PPE contracts given to direct contacts of Tory MPs and, in some cases, no usable PPE as a result.

But even this government knows that, for now at least, such open corruption will be hard to sustain; public opinion, however manipulated by lies, still has some influence, and the courts’ civil law powers cannot simply be abolished, at least just yet.

So the next stage in the pandemic-as-pilot has been to start to systematize the shift of contracts and money, by changing the law and associated processes as necessary.

I’ve already covered in detail how this has happened in three other cases. There’s the quiet changing of the law in September to allow the Test & Trace call centre firms to downgrade their staffing. There’s the later change in the way the contact tracing numbers are collected, which has allowed those same firms to get paid for contacting people they have not contacted. And there’s the way in which the providers of school meal ‘hampers’ have been allowed to set the terms of the contract that they then deliver on, in the broader context of likely changes to government procurement rules which will make such insider dealing procedures standard rather than the exception, now that EU safeguards against this kind of practice are gone.

So this latest government chicanery is on brand: a cynical systematization of profit-making opportunity for firms enabled to form a cartel, though it important to stress that, in contrast to the earlier PPE scandal, they will be conducting more legitimate business (and indeed some organizations on the accredited list are new new get-rich-quick entrants, but established providers who have no choice but to jump through the new regulatory hoops, and manage to do so).

6. The left’s response

So where does that leave those of us who can see what’s going on? How do we best oppose the systematic use of the pandemic to embed the new systems of patronage and legalized corruption?

I think there are two main things to take away.

First, we need to move past the argument that the disastrous handling of the pandemic by the government is down to incompetence and weakness, and in particular down to the incompetence and weakness of Boris Johnson.

I can see why this argument is appealing, both to a mainstream Labour party trying to promote an alternative image of technocratic, science-following’ competence, and to the rest of us with a visceral hatred of Johnson.

But we shouldn’t be taken in. It doesn’t matter much whether Johnson actually is a buffoon, or whether he understands full well the part he has to play for his class. What matters is that he and his untidy hair are a diversion, and that while we’re shouting at him on twitter, the state is being transformed.

The plain truth is that, for this new regime, the pandemic has not been handled disastrously. It’s been used very successfully to develop the new kleptocratic systems that are needed for the future and, just as importantly, to test the extent to which the population can be cowed into submission for when the economy really tanks. One hundred thousand deaths is worth the sacrifice, as far as the regime is concerned.

So the left needs to get serious about its messaging. Forget attacking Johnson as weak and incompetent, because that simply feeds the now established line that he is a man under enormous pressure doing his best for the country. Instead, it’s time to spell out what he’s really about: using the deaths of thousands for the long-term enrichment of his class, and the long-term removal of liberties from the rest of us.

And that leads up to my second and final point, where I get to quote what I wrote at the very start of the pandemic about how the government would make the most of its final stages:

The very measures that the government failed to introduce in time will be used for what may turn out to be an over-extended period, epidemiologically speaking, so that in time the tale will be of how a strong and committed government managed to flatten the dreaded second wave…... In this tale, the fact that the death toll in the first wave was so much huger than it might have been will be left aside, or written off as something nobody could have foreseen (or as Chinese plot); the focus will be wholly on the strength of the government’s measures (and its policing) and on people’s compliance.

In turn, people’s compliance with what the government orders them stands to become the new normal

I was quite wrong about the second wave. I underestimated back then just how badly Test & Trace would be corrupted, and the extent to which Sunak would seek to establish his place in the new hierarchy by signing off, literally, a vainglorious scheme that would lead to the death of thousands and demand a return to unsafe workplaces as part of that deal. This means that lockdowns have turned out to be epidemiologically necessary.

But my general point, that when the time is right, the government will shift its focus towards compliance and policing, has proved to be correct, and it’s reasonable to assume that this trend will continue.

Testing requirements imposed on venues promise to be a key part of this. What should really concern us as the preparations continue for it is that the restrictions and inequalities that come of it will indeed turn out to last a lot longer than is clinically needed, because it suits the government that this should be so. It will allow the government to look tough, but also allow it to continue its negligence of tracing.

And now — and this is what I didn’t realize when I was writing in the Spring — it also allows the firms involved in the new testing industry to keep on milking the cash cow presented to it by government.

It’s time for the left (and perhaps even Labour) prepare for this next stage, because it will be difficult. To date, it is the right that has seized the ‘freedom’ narrative, because it is willing to see other people die for its cause, and because of its lies about the science.

But there will come a time when it suits that same right to restrict our freedoms beyond the time it is necessary, arguing that this is now necessary if we are to see off the pandemic once and for. so the left needs to sharpen up not just its reaction time to events, but — as I’ve tried to do here — get ahead of them.

The left needs to start to do detail, and to spell out what the government is planning, and how real freedom is built on understanding what’s really going on a the structural level of this new, darker phase of authoritarian, kleptocratic capitalism, in which the UK regime seeks to become — as the saying goes — world-beating [8].


[1]For clarity, the regulated activities in the 2008 Health & Social Care Act specifically include “the removal of tissues, cells or fluids from the body for the purposes of discovering the presence, cause or extent of disease, disorder or injury” (Schedule 1, para (7) 1(c)).

An alternative process would therefore have been to require providers to register with the Care Quality Commission. Many of them already are, and many of them are already involved in taking swabs for other diseases. Making them jump through new hoops to undertake pretty well the same kind of clinical activity they already undertake under regulation is, as I suggest in the main text, all part of the strategy to exclude smaller providers.

[2] If we assume about £20m people use the testing providers an average twice in a six month period at £50 a test, because that’s the only way they can legally go out, that £4bn annual income.

[3] My analysis of the weekly tables on contact tracing show that each positive case produced,on average, two contacts. This compares to Australian best practice, where 1–25 contacts are produced for each positive case.

[4] There is some advance on more reliable tests, and some providers will use these, but it is important to note that there is no requirement in the legislation around minimum levels of sensitivity and specificity, only that the tests being used should have been independently validated as being in line with the manufacturer's own claims about same. This is a recipe for the continuation of poor quality tests even as progress is made, including towards wide availability of tests developed in Germany that combine PCR technology and reliability with speed of results.

[5] I will add a caveat here to my prediction about how the scheme will be rolled out. While Harding’s comments to the CBI suggests that pre-venue testing will be a pay-for service, it may be that the government will decide that this is politically unsustainable, and instead decide to throw public money at the new testing service, though clearly limiting people to a certain number of free-to-them tests will simply replicate inequalities between those dependent on a limited number of free tests and those who can afford more.

After all, it should be remembered that billions was set aside by Sunak for ‘Moonshot’ operations back in March, before the pandemic even began, and it will be simple enough to divert this existing Treasury allocation. To that extent, this is all part of the same plan.

[6] The piece linked in the main text is actually primarily about professionalization, taking careworkers as prime example. I’ve been told by readers that the wider reflection on the new governing mode inserted into this essay is an awkward fit, and in time I will extract it properly into its own book section.

[7] That is, the EU sees the Johnson regime for what it is: a Kleptocracy with no real chance of building a new high-tech industrial empire, whatever the UK elite’s delusions about the latter.

[8] This is my best effort so far at a visual representation of the New Kleptocracy, but it does not yet do justice to the authoritarian streak that runs through it, and which we’re likely to witness in its full glory in the next months.



Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.