A little-known British logistics company has received almost £800 million of Covid-19 contracts without an open tender – making it the Depart of Health and Social Care’s largest recipient of pandemic deals.
Essex-based transport firm Uniserve – that last reported annual sales of £243 million – announced it is set to make tens of millions of pounds profit from £779 million of contracts to supply the government with PPE and logistics services throughout the coronavirus crisis.
The vast scale of the contracts awarded to Uniserve without any competition has raised concerns that DHSC I not making the best use of taxpayer money – despite the understandable scramble for PPE at the peak of the pandemic.
Liz David-Barrett, a professor of governance and integrity at the University of Sussex, told the Guardian: “The purpose of a competitive process is to secure the best service at the best price and for the public, and other suppliers, to have confidence in it.
“Even in emergency conditions the government could run a streamlined competitive process, and an emergency should be for a short period. To let a really long contract under emergency provisions seems an abuse of the procedure, and puts public confidence at risk.”
Uniserve was awarded a 12-month contract to provide freight services to supply PPE and medical equipment in March, worth £473 million.
But details of the deal were only published by the government at the end of November – despite it having a legal requirement to publish notices of what contracts have been handed out within 30 days. The full contract has still not been published.
John Shingleton, director of the Handy Shipping Guide website, told the paper: “After the initial panic to secure PPE, the government should have obtained a list of such companies, from the British International Freight Association for example, and run some sort of competitive process.
“That would have shown the public that an effort had been made to ensure the transport was being commissioned with the best price and service.”
Aside from the mammoth logistics deal, Uniserve also received £304 million to supply PPE – again without tender, under emergency Covid regulations – despite the company having no expertise in the area. Research suggests that the masks supplied by the firm were overpriced.
Iain Liddell, the managing director of Uniserve, added: “The DHSC came to the right people as there are very few if any other companies that could have reacted so quickly … with the only intention of getting urgently required PPE to the frontline.”
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