In Brief

Coronavirus: secret PPE scheme saw government hand billions to political ‘cronies’

Spending watchdog finds transparency standards were not met during pandemic response

Government ministers set up a VIP channel that allowed firms with political connections to pocket billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money during the Covid-19 response, a report has revealed.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report found that “suppliers with links to politicians were ten times more likely to be awarded contracts than those who applied to the Department of Health”, The Times reports.

The “damning” report adds that in some cases “due diligence checks were not carried out until weeks after contracts had been awarded”, adding to rising allegations of “cronyism” in the handing out of big money contracts, the paper adds.

Almost 500 companies with links to politicians or government officials were referred to the fast-track channel, meaning “their pitches for contracts were automatically treated as credible by government officials charged with procuring PPE”, The Guardian says.

The use of a VIP route to securing government contracts is a “highly unusual departure from standard procurement practice”, the paper adds. 

It was only revealed by the NAO in a report showing that the UK government awarded £18bn of coronavirus–related contracts during the first six months of the pandemic. More than half (£10.5bn) of contracts relating to the pandemic were awarded without competitive tender, according to the NAO.

Officials paid out more than £5m in consultancy fees to companies with ties to ministers and the Conservative party, including signing off on a £1.5m deal with two New Zealand social media consultants who worked on Boris Johnson’s election campaign.

The NAO also drew attention to a pest control company, Pestfix, “that was mistakenly put in the high-priority route” resulting in a £350m contract for the delivery of 600,000 masks “that did not meet the standards for hospital use”, The Times says.

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chairperson of the public accounts committee, said the report showed the government had “ridden roughshod over the taxpayer... ripping up too many of the rules that guard against cronyism”.

Julia Lopez, Cabinet Office minister, said: “We have robust processes to ensure we get critical equipment, while also ensuring value for money for the taxpayer.”

Hall of shame

Ayanda Capital, received a £253m order for 50 million masks which could not be used by NHS workers, while Sabia Mokeddem, a 23-year-old financial trader, was given £880,000 to supply 55,000 coveralls.

Public First, a company run by two former Michael Gove aides, received a contract for a maximum of £840,000, of which £550,000 was invoiced. Faculty, an artificial intelligence firm that worked for Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign, was handed three contracts worth almost £3m.

Management consultancy firm Deloitte won a contract for delivering PPE to frontline workers worth £3.2m. It has since “come under fire over shortcomings in delivery”, The Times reports.

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