In a crisis we need quick thinking and resourcefulness. There’s no time to explain decisions. That’s the justification for the government by-passing scrutiny and transparency, but revelations about dubious deals with unqualified companies and political cronies stoke cries for better governance, and more democracy.

The latest in a succession of Covid purchasing failures reveals how two hand sanitiser contracts for £8.4 million were signed on behalf of the Department of health and social care with a dormant company, with only one director.

Further contracts were signed with separate Chinese firms for antibody tests that didn’t work and 50 million face masks were purchased that had the wrong ear loops, so they couldn’t be used.

A staggering £15 billion worth of contracts were signed in a belated bid to source PPE, but three of the biggest winners were unlikely companies specialising in pest control, a confectionery wholesaler and a private fund owned through a tax haven.

Contracts to deliver mass Covid testing were awarded predominantly to private companies, in a new centralised system, by-passing the option of expanding the existing public laboratory network, and is now struggling to keep up.

Serco was awarded a £45m test and trace contract despite incurring fines for failures on another government contract just a month before.

And were you surprised to read this Sunday Times announcement? “Contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) worth more than £180m have been awarded to companies owned or run by prominent supporters of the Conservative Party.”

A government spokesman insisted: “There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with the necessary due diligence undertaken on all Government contracts.”

With at least £1.7bn in deals with the private sector having so far been signed, but with many hidden from public view, nobody can yet be sure of the overall total and how much of this money was spent.

Why aren’t there more controls? in “exceptional circumstances” the procurement rules can be set aside, and firms awarded contracts without a competitive bidding process, all confirmed in a cabinet office published note – but sagely they suggest keeping proper notes of decisions, to help with future legal challenges.

In this situation the government pledged to publish the details of contracts including 600 for PPE. It has repeatedly failed to do so, leading  a cross party group of MPs, backed by the Good Law Project, to take legal action.

During the pandemic the government can carry on using the exemptions in competition law for unusual circumstances, only it seems releasing information under public pressure, but the bigger question is do these procurement rules ever protect the public interest?

Even in more normal times public information about government procurement is poor. For scrutiny the public must rely upon an audit trail once money has already been spent, often by the Public Accounts Committee or the National Audit Office.

Despite good intentions the public interest is predictably under-represented during the procurement process. Signed contracts are hidden behind commercial confidentiality. The doctrine underpinning current competition law is that public interests are best served through the workings of competitive markets.

It seems public influence, over the local decisions of their CCG and NHS trusts – who spend billions outsourcing on their behalf, is low and declining. Under the radar the NHS is being reorganized, CCGs merged over wider geographic areas, making decisions more remote from the public they serve.

Covid arrived just as NHS England was trying to steer a new course away from the competition towards integration, but it won’t mean less outsourcing. No law changes as yet, but when it happens how will the system provide the “robust” public interest decision making that our leaders think is already in place?

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Paul Evans
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director of the NHS Support Federation

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