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Full details of Covid-19 contracts worth more than £8bn have yet to be released, according to research submitted to an official inquiry into the UK government’s handling of the outbreak.

The limited information covers around 1,500 contracts awarded by central and local government departments and the NHS in England, according to research by Spend Network, a consultancy that advises on global contracts.

Although in some cases, basic notices are posted on Contract FinderOn official portals, the study found they often lacked detail and breached the Cabinet Office’s transparency guidelines by not including contract documents outlining what was procured, how much was paid and the identity of the payee.

The consultancy compiled the findings through a series of freedom of information requests and has submitted the research to the official Covid-19 inquiry.

The undisclosed contracts cover work ranging from the purchase of personal protective equipment such as gloves and gowns to providing information and advice on testing for COVID-19.

It also includes 40 contracts worth around £2bn to support private hospitals, under which NHS England has agreed to cover operating costs, including rent, interest payments and staffing during the pandemic .

In response to a freedom of information request, NHS England acknowledged the problem in February and said it would “shortly correct this position”, but has not yet done so.

NHS England said in a statement: “The NHS follows guidance from the Cabinet Office to publish contract awards where applicable, and 26 agreements procured by private hospitals during the pandemic are available online.”

Other contracts worth £6bn, including PPE deals ranging in value from millions of pounds to the largest £1.8bn PPE deal, were disclosed to varying degrees.

For example, details of several PPE contracts (valued at £10.5m in total) awarded by NHS trusts in April 2020 for 1.9m gowns have yet to be released. There are no records of who received the payment or how many dresses were delivered.

In a report last month on wider procurement practices, the public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, warned that “the poor quality of much of the government’s published contract data reduces transparency and makes it difficult to identify and promote best practice”. more difficult.”

Later this year, an official COVID-19 inquiry is expected to start looking at procurement during the pandemic, including the use of VIP access for potential suppliers of personal protective equipment with ties to politicians or government officials. A court ruled last year that a priority lane for checking bids for personal protective equipment was illegal because it did not comply with public contracts.

The inquiry is expected to hear evidence from the NAO that suppliers in VIP access were 10 times more likely to win contracts than other bidders.

“The level of transparency we need is certainly not there. The government violated procurement guidelines, but some departments don’t seem to really bother to clarify the facts and publish the coronavirus contract,” said Chris Smith, an analyst at Spend Network who compiled the research. ) express.

Procurement lawyers said that while the law does not require the government to publish contracts, courts have made clear that departments and other public authorities need to have “substantial reasons” to deviate from government guidance.

“There is no clear reason for public bodies to consider it necessary to depart from this policy guidance,” said a procurement lawyer, describing the £8bn figure as “worrying”.

The Cabinet Office said in a statement that while the government was “committed to transparency in public spending”, it was not mandatory for all public bodies, including the NHS.

The Cabinet Office said it was “false to claim that all (1,500) of the contracts cited would need to be published, particularly if those contracts were contracted through other public agencies, or if the agencies purchased goods and services that were not covered by the comprehensive procurement regulations. constraints”.


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