At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson suggested that during the first wave of Covid-19 there had been a need to “remove blockages to the procurement process” to deal with the pandemic. Well, that’s certainly one way of putting it.
The damning report released this week by government auditors, which examined Covid-related contracts handed to companies during the spring and summer, is both shocking and illuminating. In some cases, ministers did not so much remove “blockages” as forget about due diligence and proper process altogether. Cronyism was rampant, as companies with the ear of ministers and Tory MPs accessed huge sums of taxpayers’ money.
During the first six months of the pandemic, the government paid out £10.5bn in contracts which were awarded without going to competitive tender. A “high priority channel” was set up for PPE bids which were championed by an MP or a minister, and were therefore judged more credible. As governance experts have pointed out, in normal circumstances companies with links to “politically exposed persons” would be considered high-risk, rather than high priority.
At times, officials seem to have been making it up as they went along. The paperwork for some contracts was written retrospectively, months after the relevant work was done. In certain cases, there was insufficient documentation explaining why a firm was chosen for a particular job. In others it was not clear why the contract could not be put out to competition.
The National Audit Office report lists a series of eyebrow-raising deals, some of which have only come to light as result of investigations by this and other media organisations. A government adviser to the Board of Trade and the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, facilitated a £253m face mask deal with Ayanda Capital, a London-based investment firm. The official, it turned out, happened to also be an adviser to Ayanda Capital, but was not included in due diligence checks made after the contract was awarded. The 50m masks ordered were judged unsuitable.
Two former aides to Michael Gove were awarded a contract for up to £840,000, to conduct focus groups on the government’s pandemic response. The contract was retrospectively written up and the NAO found there was a lack of documentation to justify the choice, and show consideration of potential conflicts of interest. Topham Guerin, the company that ran the Conservative party’s social media campaign during the election, was paid £1.5m for services rendered in the spring. The NAO found no documentary evidence of the government’s requirements before the work began.
In the spring, ministers were scrambling to catch up with the logistics of a pandemic for which the country was woefully ill-equipped. In such situations of “extreme urgency”, public procurement regulations permit the waiving of normal competition rules.
But an expedited process should not become one in which having a Tory MP or government adviser on your side, or on your payroll, opens doors that are closed to others. The auditors have concluded that “standards of transparency” were not consistently met by the government. That is to put it mildly. Taxpayers’ money was used with a disgraceful disregard for proprieties which should always be observed, even in a pandemic.