Watchdog slams UK over secrecy in virus equipment contracts

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Jon Super

FILE - In this Thursday, April 16, 2020 file photo, a view of masks and goggles, part of PPE, personal protective equipment, to avoid being infected or transmitting coronavirus, at the Nightingale Hospital North West set up in the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Manchester, northern England. Britain's public spending watchdog says the government spent billions, without proper transparency, in a scramble to secure protective equipment early in the coronavirus outbreak. The National Audit Office says in a report Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 that companies with links to politicians were fast-tracked and had more chance of getting a 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.(AP Photo/Jon Super, File)

LONDON – 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.