At least 46 PPE deals were handed to firms in a special “VIP lane” by Tory ministers, MPs and officials during the pandemic before a due diligence process was put in place, it has emerged.
Ministers had claimed that all PPE contracts went through an “eight-stage process” to ensure value for money and quality after initial criticism over the “VIP lane”, through which contracts worth £5 billion were awarded to companies with political connections.
But a parliamentary answer, obtained by Labour’s Angela Rayner, reveals that 46 out of the 111 contracts awarded through the “high priority” lane did not go through any formal process – which was only introduced on 4 May 2020.
The National Audit Office (NAO) found last year that suppliers with links to Tory politicians were ten times more likely to be awarded contracts than those who applied to the Department of Health and Social Care.
‘Diminished public transparency’
The NAO said the government’s procurement efforts during the coronavirus crisis “diminished public transparency”, and accused officials of failing to meet “standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust”.
By the end of July 2020, more than 8,600 contracts worth close to £18 billion had been awarded – and £10.49 billion of those were awarded directly to the supplier without any competition or tendering process. In some instances, due diligence was not carried out until weeks after contracts were awarded.
The “high-priority lane” was open for companies referred by government officials, ministers, MPs and peers – sources “considered to be more credible”, the report said.
Roughly one-in-ten suppliers processed through the VIP channel – 47 out of 493 – obtained lucrative PPE contracts, compared to less than one-in-a-hundred suppliers that came through the ordinary lane.
The NAO found that 71 contracts were awarded before the eight-stage checking process was created – and almost two-thirds of those were from the “VIP lane”.
It contradicts claims by Michael Gove, then a senior Cabinet Office minister, who claimed in the House of Commons earlier this year that “every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process”.
‘Red carpet treatment’
Rayner told The Guardian: “It appears that ministers have misled parliament and the public as part of their cover-up of the VIP lane.
“It’s clear that we can’t trust a word of what ministers say about these dealings – that is why we need the publication of all meeting minutes, documents and correspondence related to every contract awarded through the VIP lane.
“The PPE fast-track VIP lane could well be just the tip of the iceberg. We need a full independent investigation to get to the bottom of the £3.5bn of contracts handed out [through the fast track].”
Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, which mounted a number of legal challenge against the government over PPE deals, said: “Once you look at the facts for the government’s VIPs – who were more likely to get a contract – it’s pretty evident they got red carpet treatment.
“Indeed, you need look no further than government’s description of them as ‘VIPs’. But still, it’s good of the minister to confirm they were treated differently.”
In his parliamentary answer to Rayner, health minister Edward Argar said: “The ‘eight-stage process’ refers to the introduction of a central clearance board on 4 May 2020. Of the contracts for personal protective equipment, 46 were awarded before that date.
“However, all suppliers who were evaluated by officials prior to the introduction of the central board were evaluated on the same criteria for financial standing, technical compliance, price and ability to perform the contract as those who were evaluated after the introduction of the central board.”
A government spokesperson added: “At the height of the pandemic, there was a desperate need for PPE to protect health and social care staff and the government rightly took swift and decisive action to secure it.
“All contracts underwent rigorous financial, commercial, legal and policy assessment. Ministers were not involved in awarding contracts.”