Contracts for test and trace worth £6.1bn were awarded to private sector suppliers © Niels Wenstedt/BSR Agency/Getty Images
Contracts for test and trace worth £6.1bn were awarded to private sector suppliers © Niels Wenstedt/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Four key questions around the UK's pandemic procurement

Contracts worth an estimated £14.4bn have been awarded by the UK government in relation to the Covid outbreak, with a direct award used “in the great majority of cases”, the House of Lords was told.

Lord James Bethell, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department of Health and Social Care, said 289 contracts – worth around £6.1bn – had been awarded to private sector suppliers to support test and trace. A further 370 contracts – worth around £8.3bn – had been awarded for the delivery of PPE.

“A direct award of a contract – an option available under the procurement regulations in cases of extreme urgency – has been used in the great majority of these cases,” he said, responding to a question from Lord Philip Harris (Con) on 4 November.

Harris told Lords Bethell had met with Meller Designs, a beauty products firm owned by the finance chief of Michael Gove’s Conservative Party leadership campaign, just weeks before the company was awarded contracts worth £155m for face masks and hand sanitiser that “did not go through the normal procurement processes”.

“The noble Lord must realise that he is in danger of appearing complicit in the stench surrounding these procurements,” said Harris.

“Will the minister publish all documentation relating to every one of these VIP and fast-track procurements, including emails or messages suggesting specific contractors, and show how decisions were based on value for money rather than favouritism?”

Bethell responded: “At the beginning of this year the global supply of PPE, in particular, and other medical supplies completely collapsed.

“There was a global drought in the supply of key materials necessary for the protection of doctors, nurses and frontline healthcare staff. In those circumstances, we relied on a very large network of contacts and formal and informal arrangements in order, under extremely difficult circumstances, to reach the people who could manufacture these supplies, often moving their manufacturing from one product to another.”

Amid the controversy surrounding procurement during the pandemic, four key questions have emerged:

1. Was there a “VIP pathway” through which contracts could be awarded at inflated prices?

The Good Law Project claims leaked Cabinet Office (CO) documents show how “special procurement channels – outside the normal process – were set up for VIPs”. Successful contractors were guided through the procurement process by the CO, while prices were only challenged if they more than 25% above average unit prices.

2. Was £150m spent on masks that were unusable?

Labour MP Rushanara Ali asked prime minister Boris Johnson a question in the House of Commons and wrote a follow-up letter claiming £150m was spent, through a contract that was not competitively tendered, on masks that could not be used by the NHS because they had the wrong straps. She also said a £120m contract went to company with a Tory councillor as a director, despite it registering a significant loss the previous year.

3. Have contracts worth £364m being awarded to Conservative Party donors and politicians?

Byline Times claims Conservative politicians and party donors have being awarded contracts worth a total of £364m to supply products including respirators, hand sanitiser and face masks.

4. Was a company run by friends of senior government figures given a £3m contract to provide Covid health messaging?

Speaking in the House of Lords debate, Baroness Elizabeth Barker (Lib Dem) said Topham Guerin, a firm in which “those running the company appeared to be friends of [Downing Street chief advisor] Dominic Cummings and [chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster] Michael Gove”, was awarded the contract without any tender process and despite having no experience in health messaging.

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