The UK government made “significant mistakes” in its procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic, leading to a “truly tragic waste” of hundreds of millions of pounds spent on items that were “useless to the NHS”, the High Court heard on Tuesday.
The Good Law Project has embarked on a high-profile judicial review, alleging that the government “spent vast sums of money” without applying due diligence, in a purchasing process that was “fundamentally not transparent, unequal and unfair”.
The not-for-profit campaign group is suing the government, claiming it breached duties of transparency last year by awarding nine PPE contracts – worth £700 million – to three companies: Ayanda Capital, Pestfix and Clandeboye.
Of the PPE purchased, it claims “a substantial proportion was “unfit for purpose” for use by the NHS.
Jason Coppel QC, representing the Good Law Project, told the High Court that the government’s procurement process led to “very serious concerns as to the management of large amounts of public money”.
“Enormous quantities of equipment were purchased without proper technical checks, at inflated prices,” he added.
Coppel said that £595 million was splurged by the government on contracts to supply PPE from Ayanda and Pestfix – but “well over half was wasted”, as it was not suitable for use.
Last year, the National Audit Office revealed that the government established a fast-track VIP lane to purchase billions of pounds of PPE from little-known companies with political contacts in the Conservative party.
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 (DHSC).
By the end of July, 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.
“Ministers did not want contacts to have to wait in line on the [procurement] portal like everyone else. They wanted personal handling of their contacts,” Coppel told the court.
“There was no quality requirement for referral to the VIP lane. In fact the only criterion for entry was a nepotistic one,” Coppel said in written arguments.
The health department responded that it “wholeheartedly rejects” the claims against it. Michael Bowsher QC, representing DHSC, said in written submissions: “PPE was desperately needed, and in large quantities. This was a public health emergency.
“Important decisions needed to be taken at speed, or else opportunities would have been lost and the UK would not have had the PPE supply which was so desperately needed.”
The case continues.