Amongst the highlights of Guido’s poolside reading this summer has been the National Audit Office’s report into the management of PPE contracts in the early stages of the pandemic. The report examined the gargantuan £13.1 billion worth of contracts for PPE signed by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) between March and November 2020. £2.7 billion of this was in the form of 298 up-front payments from the DHSC — and after the Government Counter Fraud body issued advice against such transactions. Probably wise advice given DHSC are still in some form of contractual dispute to a tidy sum of £2.7 billion. Transparency International go further — suggesting that up to 20% of all contracts raise ‘red flags’.
PPE bean counters have also fallen short of the mark. To date, DHSC still does not have a stock management system that enables it to accurately calculate how much PPE the government still holds in its inventory — and the report states that up to 300 million items have yet to be received. Tory Peer, Michelle Mone, has come under investigation by the National Crime Agency for alleged fraud. Guido suspects there are more investigations to come.
In January the High Court ruled that the government’s high-priority ‘VIP’ lane, which enabled ministers to refer contracts to bid though an accelerated procurement process was illegal. In response to the ruling, a government spokesperson said:
“The ruling says it is highly likely these offers would have been awarded if they were processed through other channels also used to process offers. All contracts underwent sufficient financial and technical due diligence and the court found that we did not rely on the referral to the high priority lane when awarding contracts.”
That may be, the mere existence of the “priority lane” is suspect, it pains Guido to say this, for once, Jolyon might be right…