The government published details of 81 PPE contracts between 28 October 2020 and 20 April 2021 after the legal deadline, FactCheck analysis has found.
These late-published deals are in addition to over two hundred similar deals we reported on last autumn.
Those in the latest batch – worth a combined £1.5bn of taxpayer’s money – were struck with suppliers without the usual competitive process.
The law says this “direct award” procedure is allowed in public health emergencies, but that ministers are required to publish details of the contracts within 30 days.
In February, the High Court ruled that Matt Hancock acted unlawfully by failing to publish a “significant number” of “contract award notices” last year within the 30-day limit. That court case covered deals struck before 7 October 2020.
In November, FactCheck reported on some 246 direct award contracts that had been struck since the start of the pandemic that hadn’t been made public for more than 30 days. Those deals were worth a combined £6bn.
Today’s analysis finds that since our last report, a further 81 contracts have been published that breach the rule. All of them were published over 150 days after being awarded and ministers took 288 days on average to make them public.
Our analysis includes two deals struck with Winner Medical during March and April last year. In January 2021, the Telegraph reported that the Chinese company has links to Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), an organisation accused of human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in the region.
Responding to that story, the Department for Health and Social Care told the paper: “We take every allegation of modern slavery extremely seriously and all our suppliers must follow the highest legal and ethical standards or they can be removed from consideration for future contracts.
“Proper due diligence is carried out for all Government contracts and all suppliers appointed to our frameworks must comply with the Labour Standards Assurance System which upholds robust rules to prevent abuses of labour.”
Another contract in our analysis, worth £14.4m, was awarded to Suffolk-based CH&L Limited on 30 April 2020. The company was established on 2 January 2020 and was ultimately unable to provide the goods. It took ministers 287 days to publish the contract award notice for this deal.
Responding to our initial findings in November, Nick Davies, an expert in public procurement at the independent Institute for Government think tank, told FactCheck: “There were good reasons, particularly at the start of the crisis, to use more direct awards, but there is little justification for the failure to publish contract award notices on time.”
“These transparency rules exist to ensure that government is accountable for its decisions and to avoid real or perceived impropriety. It’s critical that government adheres to them if it wants to maintain public trust,” he added.
Responding to our latest report, DHSC told FactCheck: “We have been working tirelessly to deliver what is needed to protect our health and social care staff throughout this pandemic, within very short timescales and against a background of unparalleled global demand.
“This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public.
“As the 2020 NAO report recognised, all of the NHS providers audited were always able to get what they needed in time thanks to the effort of Government, NHS, Armed Forces, civil servants and industry who delivered over 8 billion items of PPE to the frontline at record speed.
“We fully recognise the importance of transparency in the award of public contracts and continue to publish information about contracts awarded as soon as possible.”