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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The ongoing saga of the PPE scandal

Just when we thought that things had calmed down a bit in the ongoing saga of how the UK government bypassed standard procurement practices to give massive PPE contracts to favoured individuals, another revelation hits the media.

The Guardian reports that at least 46 PPE deals were awarded to firms put in a special “VIP lane” by Conservative ministers, MPs and officials during the Covid pandemic before a formal due diligence process was put in place. This contradicts the claim by ministers that all PPE contracts were put through a rigorous “eight-stage process” for assuring quality and value for money. In total, contracts worth £5bn were handed to companies with political or Whitehall connections were awarded through the 'VIP lane'.

The paper says that a parliamentary answer obtained by Labour’s Angela Rayner revealed that 46 out of the 111 contracts awarded through the “high priority” lane were not subjected to the formal eight-stage process, which was only brought in on 4 May 2020:

Last year, the National Audit Office found that 71 PPE contracts overall were awarded before the eight-stage checking process was created.

It said: “The Department for Health and Social Care, supported by other departments, established an eight-stage process to assess and process offers of support to supply PPE.

“It set up processes to rapidly check suppliers’ equipment against government’s PPE specifications and to undertake due diligence on the suppliers. Contracts were awarded to 71 suppliers, worth £1.5bn in total, before this process was standardised.”

The parliamentary answer to Rayner demonstrates that almost two-thirds of these 71 contracts awarded before the formal due diligence process were given out after referrals from the “VIP lane”.

The revelation contradicts claims by Michael Gove, then a senior Cabinet Office minster, who said in the House of Commons earlier this year that “every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process”.

Was Parliament misled on this issue? Can the word of ministers be trusted when they say all proper processes were followed? Is this just the tip of the iceberg? 

The need for an independent inquiry into these processes, in which all meeting minutes, documents and correspondence related to every contract awarded through the VIP lane are published, has never been more urgent.

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