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Covid-19: Contracts and Mass Testing Programme

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many contracts they have placed for the purchase of (1) personal protective equipment, and (2) the mass Covid-19 testing programme, (a) with suppliers identified as “VIPs”, and (b) using fast-track procurement procedures since 1 March; what is the total value of any such contracts; and what steps they are taking to demonstrate that such contracts (a) represented value for money, and (b) involved no favouritism.

My Lords, 289 contracts with an estimated value of £6.1 billion have been awarded by the DHSC to private sector suppliers to support test and trace, and 370 contracts worth an estimated £8.3 billion for the delivery of PPE. These figures are currently being validated with the National Audit Office. A direct award of a contract—an option available under the procurement regulations in cases of extreme urgency—has been used in the great majority of these cases. I reassure noble Lords that suppliers are evaluated by departmental officials and awarded contracts in line with the DHSC’s standard contract terms and conditions.

My Lords, the noble Lord must realise that he is in danger of appearing complicit in the stench surrounding these procurements. On 6 April, he met with Meller Designs, which provides beauty products. It is owned by a man who was the finance chief of Michael Gove’s leadership campaign and a donor to the Conservative Party, while the noble Lord, Lord Feldman, who also sat in on that meeting, was chairman of the party. A few weeks later, the company was awarded a series of contracts amounting to £155 million for face masks and hand sanitisers. Those did not go through the normal procurement processes. What was discussed on 6 April? Will the Minister publish all documentation relating to every one of these VIP and fast-track procurements, including emails or messages suggesting specific contractors, and show how decisions were based on value for money rather than favouritism?

My Lords, the noble Lord will remember that at the beginning of this year the global supply of PPE, in particular, and other medical supplies completely collapsed. There was a global drought in the supply of key materials necessary for the protection of doctors, nurses and front-line healthcare staff. In those circumstances, we relied on a very large network of contacts and formal and informal arrangements in order, under extremely difficult circumstances, to reach the people who could manufacture these supplies, often moving their manufacturing from one product to another.

We have published 80% of the contracts to date and are working on publishing the rest. I hope that that will meet noble Lords’ expectations.

KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Ernst & Young have been fined for audit failures and have regularly been chastised by the regulator, even though they have been doing audits for over a century. They have no experience of test and trace or of dealing with viruses but have received multimillion-pound Covid contracts. What due diligence checks were carried out by the Government and how? Will the Government inform Parliament and allow a public audit of all their checks on these firms?

My Lords, the circumstances of the pandemic were exceptional, and I am not sure that any large company had any experience of putting together a national test and trace programme. The firms to which the noble Lord refers have considerable consulting experience and the capacity to support the national rollout of a large organisation such as NHS Test and Trace. They have provided invaluable support to the country at a time of need. All our contracts are scrutinised extremely closely by the finance function in the DHSC, and we are supported in that by the government legal service and finance staff from the MoD and the Cabinet Office, for which we are enormously grateful.

My Lords, in July, a company called Topham Guerin was given a £3 million contract, without any tender process, to test public understanding of health messages relating to Covid. It did not have any experience in health messaging; those running the company appeared to be friends of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. Will the Government now publish the tender that has subsequently been issued, the research findings and the evaluation relating to this contract? As the country goes into lockdown, it is fair that taxpayers know whether we are paying money for old rope.

My Lords, the insight into how the public react to key messages associated with our healthcare and health advice has been absolutely critical. Behavioural change and asking the public to step up to extremely challenging requests from the Government require a huge amount of analysis and study. The support from our own communications team has been supplemented by agency support, which has both the capacity and the expertise to provide the necessary insight. That insight has been critical to the success of our messaging.

My Lords, there is little doubt that one of the main reasons we are re-entering lockdown this week is the failure of Serco’s track and trace system, which the Prime Minister promised would be world beating. I do not want to go into the detail of the connections between Serco and the party and key members of the Government. However, on a general level, can my noble friend justify renewing the Government’s contract with Serco when it has failed so badly, resulting in loss of life and livelihoods—a situation that SAGE has warned will decline further in the future?

My Lords, I do not accept the assumption that we are going into a second lockdown because of the failure of tracing. The tracing system has led to the isolation of more than 1 million individuals, which has done an enormous amount to break the chain of transmission. However, there is more that we could do. I completely acknowledge that the Government are focused on improving performance in tracing, and we will use the opportunity of the next month to ensure that that performance gets better.

My Lords, I declare my interests in medicine. Given that 55% of GPs, 35% of physicians and 11% of surgeons recently reported that they lack confidence in adequate PPE being available during the ongoing pandemic, when will the Government issue revised guidance to all NHS managers insisting on a duty of care to all front-line staff to ensure that staff are supplied with quality-certified appropriate PPE that is in date and fit tested under a risk assessment for the well-being of the clinical workforce? Have the Government commissioned research into reusable UK-manufactured PPE?

My Lords, we take the duty of care to our staff and patients extremely seriously, and that is already well documented by the NHS. I reassure the noble Baroness that purchase orders have been raised for 32 billion items of PPE in anticipation of a second wave; 18.6 billion items have already been delivered, 2.2 billion are with our delivery partners, and a further 16 billion are on their way. This is a massive investment in PPE and I reassure her that it will be made available to healthcare staff in abundance.

My Lords, it seems to me that, however urgent the requirement for PPE and other services, transparency becomes even more important in those circumstances. The Minister will be fully aware that the Ministerial Code says that Ministers are responsible for ensuring that no conflict exists, or appears to exist, between their personal interests and their public duty. As the former chair of a procurement committee for MyCCG, I received extensive NHS training on conflicts of interest, which are defined as

“a set of circumstances by which a reasonable person would consider that an individual’s ability to apply judgement or act, in the context of delivering, commissioning, or assuring taxpayer funded health and care services is, or could be, impaired or influenced by another interest they hold.”

Perception is as important as reality. Has the noble Lord declared the interests that arise out of the meetings that other noble Lords have mentioned today? Where are they recorded and published?

The noble Baroness is right that transparency is key. I take those principles extremely seriously, and that is why we are publishing the contracts. I encourage anyone who is interested in looking at them to look at my Twitter feed, where I published a link to the Contracts Finder service yesterday. I reassure her that, although some connections were made through networks, absolutely every contract had exactly the same technical assurance, exactly the same contract negotiation and exactly the same procurement scrutiny. Those were done by civil servants, and value for money for the taxpayer and the people was guaranteed by that process.

My Lords, the Minister seems to say that there is nothing to see here, whereas some of us think that there is a whiff of uncertainty and of some things being not quite right. Therefore, will he agree to appoint an independent forensic auditor to carry out an independent report that can be published publicly to show exactly what has happened with PPE procurement?

My Lords, I do not want to give the impression that absolutely everything is perfect. Those were desperate days and we had to do extraordinary things to protect our healthcare staff. I remind noble Lords that other countries were flying in their representatives with bags of cash on private jets in order to seal contracts and some of our supplies were literally taken from under our noses on the runway at Hong Kong airport. They were extremely difficult times and I do not pretend for a moment that everything was absolutely perfect, but I reassure noble Lords that the right procedures were put in place by officials, and I reassure the noble Lord that these figures are currently being validated with the National Audit Office.

Sitting suspended.