Public procurement in the UK needs a “more structured approach” to pandemic preparedness, a review has said.
In a report Nigel Boardman, a non-executive director on the board of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, said this should include an assessment of supply chain resilience, better options analysis and an “integrated role for commercial and procurement expertise within strategy formulation”.
Boardman said procurement strategy should be “central to policy-making”. He said the pandemic had “exposed some structural challenges in the relationship between key government bodies when it comes to procurement”.
He called for the creation of a “cross department risk management profession”, which would consider a wide range of areas including procurement, use of resources, and supply chain.
Boardman said a central procurement capacity in health “seems unarguable”, and details around how much control it had over buying in NHS trusts and its procurement strategies “should be looked at”.
“There is a general lesson to be learnt about fragmented services failing under pressure during a crisis,” he said.
He said PPE buying through Supply Chain Coordination Ltd (SCCL), a company wholly owned by the Department for Health and Social Care to act as the management function of NHS Supply Chain, was “not scalable for reasons including legacy IT that was in the middle of being updated and the complex ‘tower’ structure of the buying organisation”.
“This is not a sustainable position for a body with critical responsibilities in a crisis,” he said.
Boardman said he backed moves to transfer SCCL into NHS England.
The Parallel Supply Chain, including the VIP fast lane, was created in March 2020 to meet the massive demand for PPE.
Boardman said a “dedicated secretariat function” should be set up to support procurement teams in publishing contract information and complying with legal obligations. He said shortcomings in this area were partly because “teams carrying out the procurements were simply too busy addressing the immediate requirements of the job to manage these processes as quickly as the regulations required”.
Boardman also questioned the wisdom of the “call to arms” the government made for PPE suppliers, referring to teams being “swamped by unsuitable offers” from organisations and individuals who were “well-meaning but lacking the necessary competence”.
He said issues including the VIP fast lane, the time taken to publish contracts and incomplete record keeping may have “encouraged a suspicion” of “favouritism”.
“Whilst acknowledging that my review is not a forensic investigation, I have not seen evidence that any contract within the scope of the review was awarded on grounds of favouritism,” he said.
The Cabinet Office said it had accepted all Boardman’s recommendations. “The government is strongly committed to learning lessons from the pandemic,” it said.
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