Watchdog Slams Government Over Secrecy in Virus Equipment Contracts

A report said companies with links to politicians were fast-tracked and had more chances of getting a contract.

Closed shops on an empty New Bond Street, London, Nov. 17, 2020.
Closed shops on an empty New Bond Street, London, Nov. 17, 2020.
Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP

LONDON (AP) — The British government spent billions without proper transparency in a scramble to secure protective equipment early in the coronavirus outbreak, the country’s public watchdog said Wednesday.

The National Audit Office said in a report that companies with links to politicians were fast-tracked and had more chances of getting a coronavirus contract than other applicants.

Like many countries, the U.K. was caught without enough masks, gowns, gloves and other items to keep health care workers and the public safe as coronavirus cases skyrocketed.

In the push to build up stocks, the government awarded 8,600 contracts worth 18 billion pounds ($24 billion) between March and July, most without a competitive tender process. Some came from a “high-priority lane” of firms referred by politicians, health professionals and government officials, which were considered more credible and processed more quickly than others. One in 10 of those firms got a contract, compared to one in 100 from the wider pool of applicants.

The auditor said in a sample of cases it studied, “departments failed to document key decisions, such as why they chose a particular supplier or used emergency procurement, and failed to document their consideration of risks, including how they had identified and managed any potential conflicts of interest.”

It said in some cases documents to support decisions were missing, or contracts were awarded after the work had already been done. In more than half the cases, contracts had not been published by Nov. 10.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government has been accused of running a “chumocracy” by awarding lucrative contracts and well-paid jobs to people with links to ministers and the governing Conservative Party — claims it denies. Two of highest-profile figures hired to lead the government’s coronavirus response, Test and Trace chief Dido Harding and vaccines task force leader Kate Bingham, are both married to Conservative lawmakers.

One example of the lucrative contracts on offer, not cited in the audit office report, saw Florida-based jewelry designer Michael Saiger land contracts worth more than 200 million pounds to supply the U.K. government with gloves and gowns. He contracted a Spanish businessman, Gabriel Gonzalez Andersson, to help procure the items from factories in China, and paid him $28 million.

Saiger is now suing Andersson for fraud in the U.S., and details of the deal emerged in court papers.

Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Meg Hillier, who heads Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, said the government had “ripped up the rules and ridden roughshod over the taxpayer.”

“The high-priority lane is a real matter of concern," she said. “The fact that contracts haven’t been published, so we can’t see what happens -- they have been late getting that information out there — all smacks of secrecy and hiding things.”

Business Secretary Alok Sharma defended the government, saying it had acted with urgency and under “huge pressure.”

“We had to do an enormous amount of work very fast to secure PPE and that’s what we did, and I’m not going to apologize for the fact that quite rightly we made that effort,” he told the BBC.

More in Medical