Evening Standard Comment: Now is the time to be open on PPE contracts

Evening Standard Comment
·2-min read
 (Christian Adams)
(Christian Adams)

Now is the time to be open on PPE contracts

For millions of people, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic was a terrifying time. But for a small number of companies, it was an opportunity.

Last spring, the Government was desperate to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to front line health and social care staff as soon as possible. In the months following, it awarded roughly £18 billion of contracts using emergency procurement regulations.

This secured unprecedented levels of critical supplies, but the process raises serious questions about whether certain businesses with close links to ministers or Tory MPs were able to benefit unduly and, of more concern, were not best placed to deliver what our nurses and care staff urgently needed.

Let’s not forget that between March and December last year, 883 health and social care workers died of coronavirus. Forty-seven companies obtained £1.7 billion of Covid contracts after being placed in the VIP fast-track lane. They must be made public.

We already know several concerning parts of this story. Firstly, that following a report by the National Audit Office, “queue jumping” by firms with political links was official policy.

Secondly, internal documents reveal that civil servants were drowning in such requests, and having to deprioritise offers of PPE from more established companies.

Thirdly, that firms using the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to secure contracts than those using the ordinary lane.

And fourthly, that the Government received hundreds of millions of PPE of poor quality which could not be used for the intended purpose.

Yet we still do not know the names of these companies and who in Government ultimately made the decision to run the procurement in this way.

Ministers should have public sentiment on their side. The Government was facing an unprecedented crisis, and policymakers were understandably desperate to secure life-saving PPE.

But now it is the time to be open — transparency is the best disinfectant. This is not only so public trust can be restored, but also that lessons can be learned for the next crisis.

Standards in public life are vital to maintain confidence in the governing process. If ministers have nothing to hide, then they have no reason not to publish the names of the 47..

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