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Hundreds of COVID-Related Contract Documents – Worth More Than £7 Billion – Have Still Not Been Published 

Despite Government claims, a total of 272 contracts by NHS England and NHS Supply Chain Coordination have not been made public

Boris Johnson holds a COVID-19 press conference in Downing Street.

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Despite repeated claims to the contrary by senior Government ministers, hundreds of contracts worth more than £7bn that were awarded in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have still not been published.

The Byline Times has seen evidence that a total of 272 contracts worth nearly £7.2bn remain unpublished by NHS England and NHS Supply Chain Coordination, the organisation responsible for sourcing, delivery and supply of healthcare products, services and food for NHS trusts and healthcare organisations across England and Wales.

The contract awards notices were found using the government’s Contract Finder website, but the related contracts documents have still never been released, many of which were direct awards without competition. 

One of the contracts was the subject of a written question by Labour MP Wes Streeting on 23 March this year.

He asked the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care “when he plans to publish details of the contract agreed for the purchase of Single Use Theatre Protective Clothing by Collaborative Procurement Partnership LLP (CPP LLP) acting on behalf of Supply Chain Coordination Ltd (SCCL).

The contract was valued at £1.7bn and awarded on 1 April 2020.

Tory MP Will Quince explained that this contract used “an existing SCCL framework agreement and the associated terms and conditions, so no new contracts were put in place”. The missing documents are now subject to Freedom of Information legislation. 

But the trove of missing documents is significant as the Good Law Project has won a number of High Court judgements related to PPE procurement, the latest of which in February this year, that forced the Government to admit it had breached its own transparency policy in what it called a “regrettable oversight”.

In response to the unearthed contract information, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) told the Byline Times that the unpublished contracts “raise questions for the proper scrutiny of how taxpayers’ money has been spent”.

The PAC has published a number of reports on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its procurement of PPE.

A report from July 2021 warned that the “Government risks undermining public trust and accountability for the pandemic response because of departments’ repeated failure to provide a full rationale for key decisions”.


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What did Senior Ministers Know?

The lack of transparency raises questions about whether a number of senior ministers, including then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, misled Parliament. Mr Johnson said in a debate about Covid-19: Road Map in the House of Commons on 22 February 2021:

“Contained within that question was possibly another suggestion that we could have done things differently with the procurement of PPE. All I will say is that the contracts are there on the record for everybody to see..”

His office did not respond to a request for comment on how his previous statement was compatible with the unpublished contract information, but he was not the only one.

The then Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, Julia Lopez MP, said in a debate about Covid-19 Government Contracts on 21st June 2021 in the Houses of Parliament:

”Since the High Court’s judgement in relation to the DHSC’s failure to publish some contracts, it has made significant progress. It has now published all known contract award notices and the contract documents for all historical covid-related contracts.”

The late publication of contract documents was also discussed with Sir Chris Wormald Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), and Alex Chisholm Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, during the PAC meeting about the initial lessons from the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic on 10 June 2021.

Sir Chris Wormald subsequently wrote to the PAC on 2nd November 2021 and said: “As of the end of June 2021, the Department [Department of Health and Social Care] is not aware of any Contract Award Notices (and the associated Contracts and Contracts Finder Notices) which have not been published in respect of contracts awarded for the supply of goods and services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The DHSC told the Byline Times that the commitments and statements made by the Prime Minister and others were in respect to the new contracts awarded directly by the department and its executive agencies in response to Covid-19 under the 2015 Public Contract Regulations emergency procedures.

The purchases in respect of SCCL and NHS England were via a different route, using suppliers on existing framework agreements and for which they are responsible in terms of applying transparency requirements and publishing information.

A DHSC spokesperson added: “The department has met the transparency requirements associated with the contracts it awarded and to which the statements refer.

“This document refers to a number of contracts delivered under different routes by other contracting authorities, NHS England and SCCL, who are responsible themselves for applying requirements on publishing information.”

Neither NHS England or NHS Supply Chain Coordination responded to a request for comment as to why the contract information was yet to be published, or when it was likely to be, at the time of publication.

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Chris Smith, a Procurement Consultant who brought the missing contract information to Byline Times’ attention, said: “The immediate lesson is that the Government needs to look at and use its own data more and check its own laws are being followed. Until then, the true size of the transparency and accountability gap is anyone’s guess.

“With the UK Covid-19 Inquiry starting its investigation into government procurement and PPE in October of this year, there is renewed interest in how the DHSC, NHS and Cabinet Office and others handled the Covid procurement. 

“It is essential that the missing contracts are on the public record where they belong without further delay so that the UK Covid-19 Inquiry can examine the important evidence that these contracts no doubt contain.”

Mr Smith has already highlighted “this huge transparency problem” to the PAC in written evidence, and to the Public Bill Committee, which is reviewing the Procurement Bill which is in the final stages of its passage through Parliament. 

Dame Meg Hillier, Chair of the PAC, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented emergency, and the Government was forced to move at speed to procure similarly unprecedented volumes of goods, services and work to tackle it.

“While the Government is permitted to award contracts without tendering in an emergency, this power to bypass the normal rules must be accompanied by maximum transparency.

“Our 2021 report noted the Committee’s regular highlighting of poor record keeping and late publication of contracts. Any contracts that continue to remain unpublished in full, particularly in light of past assurances to the contrary, would raise questions for the proper scrutiny of how taxpayers’ money has been spent.

“Our committee continues to explore the Government’s response to the pandemic, and this issue is one of many in the future that we are likely to raise as part of our ongoing scrutiny.”

Additional reporting by Max Colbert

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