The £18bn coronavirus PPE fiasco

The £18bn coronavirus PPE fiasco: Devastating report exposes chronic bungling and ‘jobs for pals’ in rush to source safety gear during pandemic

  • National Audit Office said officials signed contracts for thousands of facemasks
  • But masks turned out to be unusable – wasting hundreds of millions of pounds
  • NAO looked at 8,600 contracts awarded by Government from January to July

A devastating report today lifts the lid on the cronyism and ineptitude that has characterised the Government’s £18billion rush to source PPE and other equipment during the coronavirus crisis.

Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings were both drawn into the debacle after the spending watchdog said officials failed to consider potential conflicts of interests involving companies linked to them.

The National Audit Office revealed that officials had signed contracts for hundreds of thousands of facemasks which turned out to be unusable – wasting hundreds of millions of pounds.

The National Audit Office report found more than 1,300 contracts worth £10.5billion were awarded by the Government with no competition whatsoever

The bombshell report found:

  • Two of the companies named in the report have links to the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser;
  • More than 1,300 contracts worth £10.5billion were awarded by the Government with no competition whatsoever – increasing the chance of money being wasted;
  • Ministers set up a separate VIP procurement route which allowed some companies to be fast-tracked for a decision – as long as they had the right connections;
  • One in ten suppliers processed through this high-priority lane (47 out of 493) obtained contracts compared with less than one in 100 suppliers that came through the ordinary lane (104 out of 14,892).

Rachel Reeves, Labour’s Cabinet Office spokesman, said: ‘The country deserves to have confidence their money is being spent effectively by the Government – and to know without doubt that friends and donors to the Conservative Party aren’t profiting from this pandemic.’

The NAO’s report looked at 8,600 contracts awarded by the Government between January and July. 

These were worth £18billion, of which £17.3billion were new contracts rather than contract extensions. Most of the money, £12.3billion, went on PPE, with the remainder going on other equipment and virus testing.

Ministers, MPs and civil servants could refer businesses to a ‘high-priority’ lane and firms which were granted this VIP access were more than ten times as likely to be awarded a contract as those in the ordinary lane. 

Leads came into a dedicated mailbox, but officials only recorded the sources in half of cases, although many were from ministerial offices following tip-offs from MPs about firms in their constituencies.

The NAO highlighted one £840,000 contract with Public First for focus groups and communications. 

Dominic Cummings was drawn into the debacle after the spending watchdog said officials failed to consider potential conflicts of interests 

The policy and research firm is owned by James Frayne and his wife Rachel Wolf, both of whom have previously worked for Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office. Miss Wolf co-wrote Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto.

The NAO said there was no evidence Mr Gove had been involved in the award, but ‘we found no documentation on the consideration of conflicts of interest’.

Mr Cummings’s association with Mr Frayne dates back to at least 2000, when they worked together on a campaign against Britain joining the euro. They also co-founded a Right-wing think tank.

The report discussed another potential conflict of interest in reference to Lord Agnew, a minister in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. 

He owned shares in Faculty, an artificial intelligence firm given three coronavirus contracts worth £3million for data analysis.

Faculty is also linked to Mr Cummings. It worked with him on the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, and The Guardian reported that he donated £260,000 to the firm from his company Dynamic Maps in 2018 and 2019.

A Faculty spokesman said: ‘The NAO found no evidence that Lord Agnew was involved in these procurements, which were contracted under delegated authority in different departments, none of them his own. 

The National Audit Office said there was no evidence Mr Gove had been involved in the award

‘It also found that the minister had disclosed his interests. Lord Agnew retains ownership of his shares through a blind trust.’

The report did not mention Mr Cummings’s connection to either Public First or Faculty. Mr Frayne, of Public First, said: ‘We agreed a pay-as-you-go deal where we could be terminated at any point if they weren’t happy with our work.’

A government source said Mr Gove had no involvement with the Public First contract.

Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez, said: ‘We have robust processes to ensure we get critical equipment to where it needs to go as quickly as possible, whilst also ensuring value for money for the taxpayer.’ 

Mr Cummings did not reply to a request for a comment. 

Dominic Cummings has links with two of the four companies picked out in the National Audit Office’s damning report.

The former chief adviser to the Prime Minister, 48, has connections to artificial intelligence firm Faculty and research company Public First, which have secured contracts worth more than £3.8million.

Mr Cummings was not named in the public watchdog’s devastating report, which found that bidders with ‘VIP access’ to ministers were ten times more likely to win Covid contracts than those who did not.

Mr Cummings worked with Faculty – which was awarded three contracts worth £3million for data analysis – on the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.

Dominic Cummings has connections to artificial intelligence firm Faculty and research company Public First

He also has long-standing links to Public First, run by James Frayne and his wife Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto.

His association with Mr Frayne dates back to at least 2000, when they worked on a campaign against Britain joining the euro.

The NAO report criticised the fact that the £840,000 Public First contract was awarded retrospectively. 

It identified that the company’s founders have also worked for Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister. The report said there was no evidence that Mr Gove had been involved in the awarding of the contract, but added that it ‘found no documentation on the consideration of conflicts of interest’.

There is no evidence to suggest that Mr Cummings played any role in either firm securing the contracts.

Another company scrutinised in the report is Ayanda Capital, which was handed a £253million contract to supply PPE. 

The deal was brokered by Andrew Mills, who was one of 12 advisers to the Board of Trade, chaired by International Trade Secretary Liz Truss. Mr Mills is also a ‘senior board adviser’ to Ayanda Capital.

Some 50million masks, worth £155million, delivered by the company were of the wrong specification and cannot be used. 

Ayanda said last night: ‘Suggestions that the masks are not fit for purpose or are somehow unsafe to use by frontline NHS workers are simply untrue and we are advised defamatory.’ 

On top of the three companies identified in the NAO report, the Mail can reveal 12 more included in the graphic above. They include Meller Designs, which secured £163million in PPE contracts. It is run by Tory donor David Meller.

P14 Medical Limited was awarded three contracts worth £272million to supply PPE. Its director is former Tory councillor Steve Dechan.   

By Emine Sinmaz for The Daily Mail

A cynical & brazen cronyism: As new report reveals £18bn coronavirus PPE farce, DAVID ROSE argues this is not how public procurement in Britain is meant to work

By David Rose for The Daily Mail

The mismanagement, the incompetence, the reckless waste – all of this is shocking. But worse, perhaps, is the brazen cronyism involved.

The National Audit Office report on Personal Protective Equipment procurement is a searing indictment of this Government’s incompetence.

Yes, there was an unprecedented crisis. As the virus rampaged through hospitals and care homes, there was a desperate shortage of PPE.

Understandably, the Government made a dramatic appeal to suppliers – please get in touch, we need you.

The Government made a dramatic appeal to suppliers of Personal Protective Equipment at the start of the pandemic

Personal protective equipment arrives from Tianjin, China , at Bournemouth International Airport on May 10

But it awarded PPE contracts worth billions to companies not on the basis of quality or price, but in many cases – according to today’s damning report – on which firms had the best personal contacts in Westminster and Whitehall.

This isn’t how public procurement in Britain is meant to work. Strict, legally binding rules are supposed to enforce fairness and transparency, promote competitive pricing and to prevent conflicts of interest.

But thanks to the pandemic, the report suggests, the rules were cast aside – and replaced in many cases by the old pals act.

The report confirms what this newspaper revealed two weeks ago, that well-connected firms and individuals could be put on a ‘VIP’ route – officially called a ‘high-priority lane’ – meaning decisions on their potential contracts were fast-tracked.

Once recommended, these firms were more than ten times as likely to win contracts.

As the virus rampaged through hospitals and care homes, there was a desperate shortage of PPE

The result is we have been landed with equipment that has often turned out to be useless, and with bills that are far higher than they should have been.

At the same time, those with real expertise and the ability to procure quality products at a good price have been sidelined.

Take Jonathon Bennett. As the Mail reported this month, he is a veteran textile importer with extensive contacts in China, where most PPE is made. His bid to supply millions of masks in April was highly competitive – well below the Government’s ‘benchmark’ price.

But the £253million contract went to Ayanda Capital, a firm with no experience which was charging almost twice as much. Worse, 50 million of their masks were of the wrong design.

Mr Bennett has long suspected Ayanda won its contract because it was brokered by someone who until recently had been an adviser to Trade Secretary Liz Truss – an Ayanda associate called Andrew Mills.

Each time the Department of Health is asked how these contracts were awarded, it says the same thing – that it always exercises strict ‘due diligence’

The NAO report confirms this. It was thanks to a ‘referral’ by Mr Mills that Ayanda’s bid got the VIP treatment.

Ayanda is far from the only company that benefited from fast-tracking and went on to produce unusable PPE.

Each time the Department of Health is asked how these contracts were awarded, it says the same thing – that it always exercises strict ‘due diligence’.

Yet the NAO report reveals that when department officials carried out ‘due diligence’ on Ayanda, they somehow failed to notice Mr Mills’s involvement.

So what were the criteria that determined who got VIP status? Amazingly, the NAO finds there were none, while ‘the source of the referral’ for this treatment ‘was not always recorded’.

In the Middle East, there is a term for this way of doing business: ‘Wasta’. It means exploiting the access and influence someone has.

Could this system really now be a feature of public policy in Britain? There are growing concerns over the allocation of up to £42billion on Operation Moonshot mass virus testing.

Insiders told me told me there has been a VIP channel in this process, too. Just how many more contracts will NAO investigators now find cause for serious concern over?   

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