Large quantities of personal protective equipment (PPE) purchased by the UK government were “useless to the NHS”, a court was told.
During a hearing at the High Court in London on Tuesday Jason Coppel QC, representing campaign group The Good Law Project (GLP), said the government failed to apply basic technical steps and due diligence in the procurement process for PPE contracts which was “fundamentally not transparent, unequal and unfair”.
Coppel said “significant mistakes” made by the government in its purchase of PPE had led to a “truly tragic waste” of hundreds of millions of pounds as the items were “useless to the NHS”, according to the Financial Times.
The campaign group launched legal action, naming health secretary Matt Hancock as the defendant, over what it said was a “breach of duties of transparency”, the establishment of a “VIP lane” for contracts, and the award of nine PPE contracts to three firms, Ayanda Capital, Pestfix and Clandeboye.
According to documents submitted to the court, GLP alleged that “a substantial amount of the PPE procured under these contracts is unfit for purpose”.
It also argued the absence of transparency had been “compounded” by the operation of a secret VIP lane, where some firms with connections to the government were prioritised in awarding PPE contracts. An earlier report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found firms in this VIP lane were 10 times more likely to be awarded contracts.
“The contracts secured by Pestfix and Ayanda were directly attributable to their VIP status; many other suppliers, who had made credible offers of PPE, but who were not fortunate enough to have connections in government did not have their offers progressed. Having a personal connection with politicians or senior officials was not a lawful basis on which to prefer some suppliers over others,” GLP said.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) argued that while the procurement process developed was “inevitably multifaceted, evolving and imperfect”, it was “lawfully achieved”.
“The secretary of state wholeheartedly rejects the various challenges made against him.” it said in court documents.
In a separate statement, DHSC said throughout the pandemic it had delivered over 11bn items of PPE to protect frontline workers.
It added: “Globally there were significant logistical challenges in sourcing, procuring and distributing PPE. The rapid rise in international infection rates during the early stages of the pandemic created unparalleled demand for PPE.
“We set up, from scratch, a new parallel supply chain to procure, manage and distribute life-saving PPE.... Officials worked day and night to secure these contracts. We prioritised procurement and we make no apology for that.”
Separately, in a report into learnings from the Covid-19 pandemic, the NAO said government buyers should ensure they have “clear documentation for establishing and using procedures that may result in unequal treatment of suppliers”.
“While segmenting suppliers based on strength of evidence to deliver can be beneficial in speeding up the procurement process, awarding bodies need to ensure that the criteria for segmenting suppliers is documented, applied consistently and records of each evaluation of supplier’s suitability are kept to support procurement decisions and avoid perceptions of unfair treatment.”
It added awarding bodies also “need to provide clear documentation on how they have considered and managed potential conflicts of interest or bias” in the procurement process.
“Before awarding contracts, awarding bodies should document due diligence checks carried out on suppliers and associated parties. Steps to manage actual and perceived conflicts of interest… should be properly documented,” it added.
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