Why Is the UK’s National Health Service Being Run by Former Bankers?

This forms part of a growing trend in which bankers and central bankers are taking up positions of influence within government beyond their traditional bailiwicks.

The Boris Johnson government is on the verge of appointing senior banker Richard Meddings as the new chair of NHS England, with a brief to push through changes in the way the service operates as well as reduce surging waiting lists. Meddings’ appointment means that two of the top roles in the UK’s public health service are now occupied by former bankers: Meddings as the head of NHS England and Savid Javid as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

Javid made a name for himself structuring emerging market synthetic CDOs for JP Morgan Chase and later Deutsche Bank. His deputy in the Department of Health and Social Care is Edward Argar, who previously worked as head of public affairs for Europe at outsourcing giant Serco, which has benefited hugely from COVID-related contracts awarded by the current government.

Meddings’ appointment to the helm of NHS England forms part of a disturbing new trend in which senior bankers and central bankers are taking up positions of influence within government beyond their traditional bailiwicks of banking, finance and economics. It was bad enough when Wall Street and City of London financiers would seamlessly flit from the C-suites of global banks to the top jobs in central banking and national treasury departments; now they’re taking up senior roles in health, culture and other areas.

The current chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation is Richard Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker. Sharp’s predecessor in the role was David Celementi, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England. Before joining the BBC, Sharp had served as an advisor to the UK’s Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak, another former Goldman banker who is now strongly tipped to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister.

In Italy, the government is already being led by a Goldman alum, Mario Draghi, who was chosen as prime minister in early 2021 despite the fact he has never been elected to public office in his life. Draghi is now being floated as the frontrunner to succeed Sergio Mattarella as Italy’s president early next year, a role the former ECB chairman appears to be happy to fill.

“My personal destiny is of no importance,” Draghi said at his end-of-year press conference. “I have no particular ambitions. I am, if you like, a grandfather in the service of the institutions.” The question is: which institutions?

No Previous Experience Required

Unlike his predecessor in the top job at NHS England, Lord David Prior, a Conservative peer who had previously served as a health minister and chaired two NHS hospital trusts, Meddings does not appear to have any previous experience in the health service at all. He is not a complete stranger to government, however, having served as a non-executive director of the Treasury. But Meddings’ most prominent roles are in the private sector, including as non-executive director at Credit Suisse, where he chaired the bank’s Audit and Risk Committees in the lead up to the Archegos Scandal; and as chairman of mid-sized lender TSB.

Meddings “has unrivalled business experience and will bring an outsider’s eye to the NHS”, an unnamed source told the Daily Telegraph, adding: “We can’t have business as usual when it comes to the health service. Reform is needed to deliver an NHS that serves patients for years to come.” The government is apparently also anxious to identify a “heavyweight” from the private sector with experience in digital and data, in order to help the NHS make better use of technologies.

As I reported in my August 20 article, “Going, Going, Almost Gone: UK Government Speeds Up Privatisation of National Health System,” the NHS recently found itself in hot water due to its misuse of patient data:

Managers at NHS Digital came up with an ingenious plan to digitise and share up to 55 million patients’ private heath data with just about anyone who is willing to pay for it. That data includes sensitive information on physical, mental and sexual health, as well as gender, ethnicity, criminal records and history of abuse. It could even include a patient’s drug or alcohol history. The NHS Digital managers kindly allowed patients to opt out of the scheme; they just didn’t bother telling them about it until weeks before the deadline, presumably because millions of patients opting out of the scheme would have meant less money for the NHS.

When the FT finally broke the story, a scandal erupted. NHS Digital officials have since scrapped the scheme, saying they now want to focus on reaching out to patients and reassuring them their data is safe. That may be easier said that done given recent revelations that more than 40 pharmaceutical, consultancy and data companies worldwide have already had access to UK hospital data and medical records for years. Those companies include McKinsey & Company, KPMG, Novavax, AstraZeneca, marketing firm Experian and a data company co-founded by the Sackler family, who made billions of dollars selling OxyContin, an opiate painkiller stronger than morphine.

The Right Man for the Job?

In September, NHS Digital courted further controversy when it emerged that the division had been using undisclosed companies to analyse facial data for the NHS App, which has become the easiest means of accessing the NHS certificate proving an individual’s Covid-19 vaccination status. NHS- digital arm has refused to publish the contracts it has signed with private companies subcontracted to manage the application and the data it generates. The NHS also appears to be sharing some of the facial recognition data it collects with law enforcement bodies.

Clearly, there is ample room for improvement in the way the NHS manages the data of its 55 million patients. 

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