MPs have demanded an explanation from chancellor Rishi Sunak on the government’s awarding of contracts to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic, following a damning report from the UK’s accounts watchdog.
At least £18bn-worth of PPE contracts signed by the government showed “a lack of transparency” and were missing essential paperwork, the National Audit Office (NAO) found in a wide-ranging report released on Wednesday.
Details of around £10.5bn-worth of contracts awarded without any competition were missing, and other agreements were drawn up only after companies had started on the work, the NAO said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was yesterday forced to fend off claims he was running a “chumocracy”, after it emerged almost 500 companies with close political ties were given “high priority” access to PPE contracts.
Treasury committee chair Mel Stride today led a caucus of MPs urging the chancellor to provide greater clarity on the government’s PPE contracts.
In a letter to Sunak, Stride said: “Some of the elements of the procurement process identified by the NAO appear to be of concern.
“The Treasury has a key role to play in achieving value for money for taxpayers. The efficacy of its oversight of public sector spending has been called into question.”
Stride urged Sunak “to provide us with information on whether the Treasury has followed the correct procedures when considering spending requests, whether any procedures have been curtailed as a result of the pandemic, and whether going forward any changes to these procedures are needed in light of the NAO report.”
The watchdog’s head, Gareth Davies, acknowledged there were exceptional circumstances but said openness was essential if the government was to maintain public trust.
“The evidence set out in our report shows that these standards of transparency and documentation were not consistently met in the first phase of the pandemic,” he said.
The government on Wednesday shrugged off accusations that its procurement process had been overly opaque, and argued it had needed to respond urgently to the coronavirus crisis.
“We shifted heaven and earth to get 32bn items of PPE into this country,” Johnson told Parliament. “I’m very proud of what has been achieved.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP and leader of the House of Commons, yesterday compared the government’s scramble for equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic to calling out an emergency plumber.
He said the UK was in the situation of “having a leak at two in the morning” and therefore it was “inevitably expensive” to procure PPE.
Details of further questionable PPE contracts this week ramped up pressure for the government to shed light on its procurement process.
On Tuesday, it emerged the government is facing legal action after awarding a £250m contract for PPE to an American jewellery company with no experience producing healthcare equipment.
The Good Law Project has filed legal proceedings against the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) after it awarded Florida-based firm Saiger LLC £70.5m in June to procure 10.2m gowns to the NHS — approximately the entire number of gowns used by NHS England for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
More than £21m of UK taxpayer cash was paid by the company to a Spanish businessman tapped to act as a go-between to secure the protective garments.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves slammed the revelations as “completely astounding”, and urged the government to provide “more transparency” on its procurement procedures.