The billions spent by the UK government on fighting Covid need proper scrutiny | Simon Jenkins


The point of Brexit, according to its champions, was to liberate Britain from intolerable EU rules. One of these was that government contracts should always go out to transparent competitive tender. This was supposed to aid efficiency and avert the endemic corruption of certain European states. One such state now appears to be Britain.

Last November the National Audit Office estimated that since the coronavirus pandemic began, Whitehall had given out £18bn in procurement contracts, largely for PPE supplies and test-and-trace services, including to firms with little or no record of such work. It turned out that the government also secretly set up a fast conduit – a so-called VIP lane – for contracts to people personally known to ministers, peers and MPs.

Unsurprisingly, this became a crony bonanza. Of the £18bn spent, the NAO has traced £10.5bn awarded directly without competition. About one in 10 bids to supply through the fast-track system were awarded contracts, against one in 100 from open tender bidders. Meanwhile, the procurement consultancy Tussell found that of £15bn in health department contracts to buy PPE by October, only £2.68bn of the contracts had been published.

The sums are staggering, as is the potential for waste…

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