Emergency measures introduced to speed up the procurement of personal protective equipment in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic were an obstacle to civil servants’ efforts, according to campaign group the Good Law Project.
The group said the “high-priority lane” – or “VIP lane” – for suppliers that allowed ministers and officials to endorse firms left civil servants snowed under with offers from unsuitable providers.
It said the insight came from e-mail communications between civil servants provided as part of its High Court bid to force government to publish full details of its PPE procurement.
One message read: “We are currently drowning in VIP requests and ‘High Priority’ contacts that despite all of our work and best efforts do not either hold the correct certification or do not pass due diligence.”
A National Audit Office investigation into the government’s procurement of PPE last year found that high-priority lane suppliers were 14 times more likely to be awarded a contract than others. The NAO said that as of 31 July last year £10.5bn in coronavirus related contracts had been awarded without a competitive tender.
Another communication submitted to the High Court by the Good Law Project was an email sent from Andrew Mills, of Ayanda Capital, warning officials that a proposal to supply PPE “really needs ministerial attention”. The mail cited press reports that the government had failed to capitalise on “a number of procurement opportunities”.
A 7 May internal communication from a government commercial specialist confirmed that a decision had been taken to proceed with Ayanda’s proposal but noted “the bar seems to be lowered for this one”.
The Good Law Project said pest-control firm PestFix was awarded six contracts for PPE after being recommended for the VIP list by Department of Health and Social Care chief commercial officer Steve Oldfield, who told officials his father in law was a friend of the company’s chair.
It provided a 28 March 2020 e-mail from Oldfield to Emily Lawson of NHS Improvement that was titled “Re: Fast Supply of PPE and Sanitizer”.
Oldfield wrote: “Just putting this on your radar: it came from a friend who’s a contact of my father-in-law’s.”
The Good Law Project said the government had not been able to provide any “contemporaneous evidence” of due diligence being conducted on PestFix or factors supporting its inclusion on the VIP lane for PPE.
It said government had so far only “provided partial and incoherent evidence” of its coronavirus-related procurement activities and that it had been “heavily redacted” with key items were missing. It added that no Whatsapp messages, text messages, file notes or submissions to ministers had been disclosed.
“If ministers were pushing civil servants to prioritise PPE contracts to politically connected suppliers, then this information is highly relevant,” it said.
Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said the documents published so far were “explosive”.
“It is shocking that basic checks were missed and companies without proper certification were allowed to jump the queue,” she said.
“Time and time again Labour has called on the Conservatives to publish details of companies on the VIP fast lane, and time and time again they have refused, and insisted on covering them up.
“This is yet more evidence of the Tory sleaze that is happening on Boris Johnson’s watch.”
Last year NAO head Gareth Davies said the watchdog’s investigations into the government’s pandemic procurement had found that the “standards of transparency and documentation were not consistently met” during the first phase of the pandemic.
“At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, government had to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly whilst managing the increased risks this might entail,” he said.
“While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, it remains essential that decisions are properly documented and made transparent if government is to maintain public trust that taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately and fairly.”
Responding to the latest disclosures, a government spokesperson said: "All PPE procurement went through the same eight-step assurance process and, in conjunction with those checks, due diligence is carried out on every contract and ministers have no involvement in deciding who is awarded them."