Covid Procurement Highlights Need For Reform

The original version of this article was first published in Construction Law by Nick Barrett

Much, if not all, of 2021 will be spent dealing with the fall out of the Covid-19 pandemic, and hopefully learning from the way the UK mobilised its central government procurement systems to combat it. There is much to learn.

There are hopes that leaving the European Union might mean a more welcoming attitude to the sort of fundamental reform that has long been recognised as essential for more efficient, money saving procurement of all services and products by the public sector. There have been successes. Developing and manufacturing a vaccine in such a short space of time might go down in history as one of the great medical success stories. The construction industry earned well deserved plaudits for making the Nightingale Hospitals available in a timely fashion. But was the way the UK responded to the pandemic a procurement success story?

Most crucial medical supplies like personal protective equipment (PPE) for national health service staff were obtained. But there were some headline grabbing embarrassments for the government along the way. A raft of previously unknown ‘brokers’ popped up promising to deliver supplies that nobody suspected even existed. Sometimes they didn’t, at least not while meeting the required specification. Some of these people or organisations were able to simply ‘flip’ the contracts, creaming off large profits.

Some contracts were awarded retrospectively as normal standards of transparency and procurement process were steamrollered in the understandable rush to combat Covid, which quickly caught the eye of the National Audit Office.

An almost unique part of the UK’s Covid related procurement during 2020 was abandoning the usual practice of subjecting the award of contracts to suppliers with known connections to gatekeepers like Ministers and MPs to greater scrutiny than usual. This abandonment of open competition was achieved through the creation of a high priority channel for some major awards that companies could breeze through if recommended by these gatekeepers, which included health service officials. Entry to this channel reportedly improved chances of being awarded a contract by a factor of ten.

We will probably never know for sure what part of the £15 Billion or so that has been spent on PPE so far could have been saved. On transparency the UK has fallen well behind international standards in its Covid related procurement. Some countries publish all emergency contracts within 24 hours. UK procurement rules demand publication after 30 days; but many were unpublished after three months, or longer.

Other countries have already investigated their procurement during the first year of the pandemic, pointing out where things could be improved. The UK government has yet to undertake such detailed scrutiny of its performance, so the opportunity for learning and improving is so far being passed up, at unknown cost to the public purse.

The pandemic has highlighted weakness in the UK public sector procurement system, in particular its uncoordinated and fragmented nature, which have been appreciated for years. The need may be for appointing someone with an overarching power to reform public sector procurement, to ensure readiness for another pandemic, which we are assured will arrive one day, as well as to generate efficiencies that might leave us in a better position to both respond to and pay for it.