PPE of poor quality and that cannot be used for the intended purpose”.
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A report by the National Audit Office into Covid contracts procurement has revealed that “queue jumping” by companies with links to ministers, officials, members of the House of Lords and some MPs was official policy, albeit hidden from the public and from companies applying in the “ordinary lane”.
The report showed that of 493 suppliers put into the “high priority lane” for personal protective equipment and test and trace contracts to July 31, 47 were successful, about one in 10, whereas less than one in 100 suppliers applying through the parallel “ordinary lane” secured contracts.
Of the successful VIP suppliers, 12 were introduced by MPs, seven by peers, 18 by government officials and in five cases the source was not stated, with one supplier put on the list “in error”, according to the public accounts committee.
The committee said the Government “wasted hundreds of millions on PPE of poor quality and that cannot be used for the intended purpose”. But the Government has refused to name the 47 companies that shared in the £1.7 billion bonanza, nor who the referrals came from.
Labour has called for full disclosure and Transparency International has said transparency is essential to restore public trust.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the Standard: “Every day more evidence emerges confirming Boris Johnson’s government is engulfed in sleaze and cronyism. The taxpayer deserves to know who Boris Johnson handed lucrative Covid contracts to.”
The names of two of the 47 — Pestfix and Ayanda Capital — originally emerged as a result of litigation brought by the Good Law Project and were repeated in the NAO report, revealing contracts worth £350 million and £252 million respectively.
The group intends to challenge these contracts in the courts.
The Evening Standard believes that identifying the 47 and their links to government goes to the heart of sleaze allegations and that — with at least £1.7 billion of public money at stake — it has huge public interest implications.
Jo Maugham, founder and director of the Good Law Project, said: “The Government must release the names of the 47 companies, the people who put them into the VIP lane, why they were put in, and how they came to win their contracts.”
The Government said: “We do not intend to publish a list of the companies. The job of any government in a crisis is to act quickly to save lives and we opened a high priority channel to prioritise credible offers of PPE. All leads went through the same process, including quality checks, price controls and other due diligence.”
The NAO found no evidence that ministers were involved in procurement decisions and said many leads for the priority lane came from opposition MPs and peers.
Ayanda Capital said: “Ayanda’s profit margin was very close to the bottom end of corporate margins on typical NHS supply contracts.”
Pestfix has previously told the BBC it was proud of its role sourcing PPE.
Transparency International also analysed Covid contracts and said “the way the Government handled bids appears partisan and biased in favour of those with political access”. It reviewed nearly 1,000 contracts worth £18 billion and identified 73 deals worth £3.7 billion that raise “one or more red flags for possible corruption”.
It said 65 were for PPE equipment and 24 worth £1.6 billion went to those with known connections to the Conservative Party. In addition, three contracts worth £536 million went to politically connected companies for testing related services, and 13 contracts went to 10 firms less than two months old.
Although there was an urgent need to secure PPE, the approach adopted may lend credence to the view that the Government prioritised “cronyism” over suitability for the job. Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner demanded that the Prime Minister publish the VIP list in full. Munira Wilson, Lib-Dem health spokesman, added: “This shady approach to procuring PPE is unacceptable. That genuine companies seem to have been pushed to the bottom of the list by firms with friends in high places is a national scandal.”
More than half of all contracts were awarded without any competition, the majority overseen by the Department of Health.
Of 1,644 new government contracts awarded with a value above £25,000, over half had not had their details published, according to the National Audit Office. There has been no assessment of whether the 47 VIP deals provided “value for money”.
John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Ministers understandably had to work at pace to arm healthcare workers with the equipment they needed, but millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash was wasted in the process.”
Additional reporting by Sophia Sleigh