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We still don’t have the full picture of the chaos of the COVID years – the billions wasted, the lives needlessly lost, and the decisions facilitated through WhatsApp messages that have mysteriously vanished.
But Byline Times has attempted to shed some light on the years of scandal, before the public inquiry got underway.
We hope our reporting stands as testament to the need for vigilant journalism, to shine a light on the murkiest days of the pandemic.
This is a snapshot of our reporting on the Coronavirus ‘cash carousel’ and what happens when cronyism seeps deep into British politics.
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The Crisis Begins
Within weeks of the first lockdown, Nafeez Ahmed on Byline Times became arguably the first journalist to break the story of the emerging personal protective equipment (PPE) scandal.
On April 2 2020, he exposed how lucrative contracts were being awarded to Conservative Party associates.
Boris Johnson’s Government had appointed a giant haulage firm with financial ties to the Tory Party to be in charge of a new supply channel for PPE to the NHS. Its founding executive chairman was Steven N. Parkin, a top Conservative Party donor who has attended exclusive ‘Leaders Group’ meetings and donated almost £1 million to the party in the preceding five years.
This set the tone for an extensive investigation into COVID-19 contracts, shedding light on a concerning trend of cronyism.
That May, Stephen Delahunty on Byline Times revealed that another Conservative donor was involved in the COVID-19 contracts.
Europa Worldwide Group – the managing director of which was a personal donor to Johnson – was found to be arranging PPE supplies for the NHS and manufacturing testing kits.
No one would begrudge firms being involved in ‘helping’ the emergency effort. But the lucrative profits secured off the back of many of these deals, often going to Conservative-linked figures, began raising eyebrows.
This newspaper continued – pretty much alone – in examining these contracts.
In July 2020, Delahunty revealed that companies with no prior experience or expertise were inexplicably receiving multi-million-pound contracts. This was despite the looming threat of legal challenges over what was to be dubbed the ‘VIP Lane’: pathways for firms to win government contracts with little oversight and through referrals from well-connected politicians.
Brexit featured too. That same month, Stephen Komarnyckyj discovered that an award of a PPE contract to a company that had no cash stemmed from the UK choosing not to join the EU-wide PPE purchasing scheme.
In quick succession, we found that a recruitment firm with just £322 in net assets had received an £18 million Government contract. By this time, legal campaigners at Good Law Project were on the case. But their revelations and ours were still largely going unreported in the rest of the established media.
Three more contracts emerged in July, going to a fashion company, a trade consultant and a gambling company. It was beginning to look desperate – and fishy.
Using a legal loophole designed for emergencies, the Government was able to award these huge contracts without any competition. And, it seems, without even basic due diligence checks.
A New Phase
Things got even weirder that August, when Byline Times revealed the companies linked to the exclusive Plymouth Brethren religious sect which were mopping up huge COVID contracts. And still the warning signs kept flashing, as we dug up dormant firms which emerged from seemingly nowhere to win millions in PPE deals.
All these contracts could be justified if they were effective in saving lives. But in August 2020, we began to see the true picture: much of the PPE purchased at vast sums couldn’t actually be used. It wasn’t up to scratch. Meanwhile, NHS staff continued to complain of shortages and shoddy equipment.
Labour MP Dawn Butler was among the first politicians to sound the alarm following our reporting. She told Byline Times that summer that the award of the new contracts to unheard-of firms was “yet another example of questionable procurement contracts” by the Government and that “the list seems to be growing day by day”.
“There is no competitive tendering and no transparency,” she added. “The full extent of this scandal must be brought to light, with full details published of all contracts, so this does not happen again. We all deserve to know how our public money is spent.”
Did ministers listen?
It seemed not. September came around, and Sam Bright reported that the Government spent more than £300 million on overalls for NHS staff – at a cost of £840 per bodysuit actually delivered.
By this point, questions were being asked in Parliament. Our findings of the Government awarding £122 Million in PPE contracts to a one-month-old firm appeared to trigger probing at Prime Minister’s Questions.
At this point, we could piece together the picture from the first months of the pandemic – and it was not a pretty sight. Government spending on PPE deals to Conservative backers had hit £364 million.
And still, health professionals continued to call for adequate protection as the second Coronavirus wave approached.
Another Wave of Sleaze
In 2021, the COVID cash machine just kept giving – to a select few.
Pulling together a year of evidence, Byline Times and The Citizens revealed that deals worth at least £2 billion had been awarded to top Conservative Party associates during the Coronavirus crisis.
A firm that gave £400,000 to the Conservatives won a £93.8 million PPE deal. The figures being handed to the Plymouth Brethren sect alone hit £1.1 billion.
And, as before, vast amounts of the PPE were useless.
In what was dubbed “perhaps the most shameful episode of the pandemic”, £4 billion in PPE went up in smoke: burned as unusable, while NHS staff continued to feel burnt-out and abandoned.
Meanwhile, profits quadrupled for the Conservative donor companies. There was nothing stopping them continuing to donate more to the Conservative Party. Byline Times’ Peter Jukes dubbed it a “state-subsidised oligarchy” – a corporate takeover of government.
It was in this context that PPE Medpro – tipped to Michael Gove for a contract by Conservative peer Baroness Michelle Mone – could prosper.
This newspaper was the first to reveal Mone’s links to the firm – links which were vigorously denied under threat of libel action, but which we now know to have been true. (Mone and PPE Medpro are under investigation by the National Crime Agency but deny any illegality).
It was one of many companies that were referred by Conservative MPs and peers to the expedited ‘VIP Lane’ for PPE contracts during the pandemic.
PPE Medpro took in the region of £60 million in profits. Much of its PPE was also deemed unusable by the NHS.
Overall, the value lost to dodgy PPE was nearly £9 billion – a quarter of the annual UK budget for housing and the environment put together.
Is there any other country in the world that has witnessed sleaze and scandal on such a scale around COVID contracts?
And did the £200 million-plus COVID ‘bungs’ to the press – the Government’s ‘All in, All Together’ public information campaign subsidising profitable newspapers – help Johnson’s administration get away with it?
What We Know Now
The Government lost billions of taxpayers’ money to dodgy contracts, waste and fraud, after suspending its usual procurement processes during the pandemic.
Johnson’s Government relied heavily on a highly secretive ‘VIP Lane’ for procurement of goods such as PPE, with £8.7 billion of public money wasted on buying unsatisfactory, unusable or overpriced PPE.
Subsequent Labour Party analysis showed that £3.5 billion of pandemic-related contracts were awarded to businesses that were directly linked to the Conservative Party or have donated to them.
To do this, the Government ignored fraud warnings and advice about the lack of basic checks on COVID support schemes.
Former Treasury Minister Lord Agnew described “schoolboy errors” and resigned from over his frustration at the lack of action on tackling COVID fraud. Kemi Badenoch has since criticised Rishi Sunak’s lack of interest in COVID fraud when he was Chancellor and claims he dismissed her concerns.
And so it wasn’t just about PPE: the trail of wasted cash ran through the Government’s COVID support schemes too.
The latest estimate for COVID-related fraud in Government support schemes is estimated to be to be £7.2 billion, according to House of Commons Library analysis of Government reports.
This includes fraud losses across business loan and grant schemes, and fraudulent use of the furlough and Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ schemes – the latter of which is credited with triggering a surge in COVID cases in summer 2020. Taxpayer losses from COVID fraud could even reach as high as £10.8 billion.
Stronger checks on who was getting this money could have saved £2.6 billion – roughly equivalent to the total cash that went to Conservative allies.
According to internal documents from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), seen by Good Law Project, VIP Lane suppliers like PPE Medpro were paid on average 80% more per unit than other suppliers. Some contracts were agreed at more than four times the average unit price.
Even the ‘clean-up’ operation is costing a fortune.
The DHSC employed a ‘commercial advisor’ on 1 April 2022 at a rate of £1,100 a day to help its recently established ‘contract dissolution team’ extricate the department from the wasteful contracts signed with PPE suppliers.
With a total fee of £242,785 for 220 days work, only the Chief Executive of NHS England was set to be paid more by the DHSC this year, according to Labour.
What Happens Next?
The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee revealed that only 2% of COVID business grants lost to fraud has been recovered to date. Labour says that, if elected next year, it will pursue “every pound of public money” that has been inappropriately lost from pandemic related contacts, fraud and waste. Under the party’s plans, a COVID Corruption Commissioner would tackle the waste, fraud and dodgy contacts signed off by the Government during the pandemic.
Efforts at recovering the money are hampered by the fact that the UK is out of step with other countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, in having no offence of “fraud against the public purse” – except in relation to welfare and tax fraud.
But in the end, it’s not so much about the money, as the lives that would have been saved had Britain had well-stocked PPE supplies and proper checks on whether the supplies NHS workers were demanding were up to standard. Money can be clawed back. Lives cannot.
That baton is now held by the COVID Inquiry, which will begin its third module in the new year. Part of its remit is looking at how the spread of COVID-19 within healthcare settings was prevented – or not – including the adequacy of PPE.
Byline Times wishes it every luck in its digging – and for the hope that, one day, there might be some accountability for the cronyism and catastrophes of the Coronavirus pandemic, which, to date, has resulted in more than 230,000 people in the UK dying.
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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.
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