Why were the UK government's Covid contracts challenged?

The way these contracts (worth billions of pounds of public money) were awarded led to accusations of a lack of transparency and there have been court rulings against the government.

How much was wasted?

A report from the Public Accounts Committee in June 2022 found that of £12bn spent on PPE:

  • £4bn did not meet NHS standards and has not been used
  • £4.7bn has been written down to reflect how prices have fallen since it was bought
  • £673m was spent on PPE that was defective
  • £2.6bn has not been used because it is not of the type or standard preferred by NHS staff, even though it met the required standards.

The report said that the government is planning to burn “significant volumes” to generate power.

What are the normal rules?

Usually, when the government needs to buy something, it must start a “competitive tendering process”.

A department will publish specifications of what it wants. Companies are encouraged to bid by stating the price at which they could offer it and details such as the quality of the product. The government checks the companies will be able to provide it and signs a contract with the one offering the best value for money.

What happened in 2020

According to a report published by the National Audit Office (NAO), between March and July 2020, new contracts worth £17.3bn were awarded to suppliers:

  • £10.5bn were awarded directly without any competition
  • £6.7bn were awarded directly to pre-approved suppliers (although they were not necessarily pre-approved for the products they were selling)
  • £0.2bn were awarded using a competitive process

The government is still obliged to publish details of large contracts if they’re issued by direct award.

What happened in 2021

It was the failure to publish details of contracts within the required 30 days that led the judge to rule that the then health secretary, Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully.

The government published the details of 40 PPE contracts worth £4.2bn in June 2021, which were awarded a year before, despite having said in February 2021 that all the details of PPE contracts had already been published.

In documents seen by the BBC, government lawyers admitted on 25 February 2021 that 100 contracts for suppliers and services relating to Covid-19 (signed before 7 October 2020) had yet to be published.

Problems with orders

  • Fifty million face masks bought in April 2020 could not be used in the NHS because they did not meet its specifications.
  • The use of 10 million surgical gowns was suspended for frontline NHS staff because of how the items were packaged.
  • A million high-grade masks used in the NHS may not have met the right safety standards and were withdrawn.
  • Millions of medical gowns were never used, having been bought from a company called PPE Medpro(linked to Conservative member of the House of Lords Michelle Mone) for the NHS at the end of the first lockdown for £122m.

What was the VIP lane?

The government introduced a “high-priority” or VIP lane on 2 April 2020 to treat offers of PPE with greater urgency if they came from a supplier recommended by ministers, government officials or MPs and members of the House of Lords.

The NAO report found that up to the end of July 2020, about one in 10 suppliers who had been put in the high-priority lane were awarded government contracts, while the figure was less than one in 100 for other suppliers, outside the lane.

According to Tom Sasse from the Institute for Government “The Cabinet Office did not manage to keep a proper account of who recommended a particular supplier, which opens it up to accusations of cronyism.”

In November 2021, a Freedom of Information request returned a list of 50 companies that had been on the VIP lane, together with the people who had referred them. Of the 20 that had been referred by politicians, all were Conservative members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Five of them involved Matt Hancock.

In January 2022, the High Court ruled that the use of the VIP lane, by Matt Hancock at the DHSC, had been unlawful, following a legal challenge over the awarding of PPE contracts to two companies.

Matt Hancock served as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care from 9 July 2018 to 26 June 2021 (i.e. throughout the worst of the COVID pandemic) and was, therefore, responsible for all of the irresponsibility, incompetence, illegality and cronyism that was rampant during his “leadership”.

The BBS article (follow the link for more) is, of course, not the complete story of the self-servers who made fortunes from Matt Hancock’s shambles - more has been discovered, more is being discovered and more will be discovered. Nevertheless, it is a damning indictment of the Conservative government’s self-interested approach to the COVID crisis … :rage:


This is about as dodgy and bad as one can possibly imagine a waste of our taxpayer money can get. Billions thrown around - in some cases so that those with the right connections could grab some.
But in fact it is worse than that. The NHS should have had much more PPE in storage - just in case of such a pandemic. In fact, it did. But about ten years ago the government put the managed and storage of PPE out to a private contractor. In the time between then and the pandemic this contractor moved kit around to cheaper storage locations, lost records of what kit they had and which kit was out of date, and was unable to swing into PPE supply of exactly the emergency stocks needed for a pandemic.
Yes, there would still have been a need to supplement these stocks. But if these stocks had been more available, properly managed and at hand - then the buying panic would not have been needed.
And all that is before we get into how the privatisation of the NHS supply chain contributed to the issues around this PPE buying fiasco.