Boris Johnson Cabinet meeting. Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article Boris Johnson Cabinet meeting. Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The government has handed more than £17bn of lucrative Covid contracts to their mates who aren’t delivering

The news that the head of the government’s vaccine taskforce is entangled in a corruption scandal has been somewhat drowned out by the good news that some of us could be injected with hope” as early as December with the new coronavirus vaccine.

But only 24 hours before the vaccine breakthrough was announced, The Sunday Times reported that Kate Bingham, the soon to be ex-chair of the Covid vaccine task force, had spent an astronomical £670,000 in just a few months on a firm of public relations consultants, Admiral PR. These PR consultants were employed to carry out work civil service press officers are already paid to perform.

The story went on to reveal that Ms Bingham, a venture capitalist by profession with no known medical nor healthcare management experience, married to a Tory Treasury Minister, disclosed sensitive information about which vaccines were being reviewed by the British government. Acknowledging that she had revealed the confidential information at a $200-a-head private investors’ conference, Bingham, denied any wrongdoing.

On Tuesday, following fast on the heels of The Sunday Times report, we learnt from The FT that Admiral PR is a firm with excellent political connections – the company’s director is a longstanding business associate of Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law. It is clear that neither Covid regulations nor contract procurement rules apply to the Cummings family.

Questioned on Tuesday morning about the corruption allegations, Matt Hancock was at pains to avoid answering, confirming only that Binghams contract expires in December, and insisting she had done a great job in her post.

Unfortunately, this story is not an isolated one. Rather it is symptomatic of how the government has conducted itself throughout the pandemic. Contracts, massive contracts, have consistently been awarded to unqualified Tory chums with no procurement process or tender in sight.

Dido Harding, friend of the Health Secretary and married to Conservative MP John Penrose, was selected to run the £12bn NHS test-and-trace programme without an open appointments process and with no experience in public health – and it shows.

Appearing today at a joint select committee hearing Baroness Harding was unable to provide spending details of the test and trace service, and confessed that the service had been taken by surprise by the increase in demand, obvious to most, that it was placed under when schools and universities returned in the autumn. 

According to the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit legal organisation which aims to challenge abuses of power, there are numerous examples of serious government corruption during the pandemic. The Project has highlighted cases of PPE procurement. Ayanda Capital, for example, is another “politically connected” firm awarded a £252 million government contract for the supply of facemasks later found to be unsuitable for NHS use.

The government has repeatedly tried to hide its Covid spending, but following legal challenges has been forced to disclose that the Department of Health has handed over  £17 billion worth of Covid related contracts to private companies since April.

In October the Good Law Project, noted there was £3 billion worth of government spending unaccounted for since April. Today they revealed that this figure has grown by over million: there is now over £4.4 billion worth of contracts which no one outside government knows anything about.

Legally the government is required to publish details of contracts awarded within a month of the award being made – the average length of time this government takes is 78 days, and that’s once pressure is exerted. This delay has serious implications for the ability of parliament, journalists or lawyers to hold it to account.

When details are revealed it is apparent the there is a blatant disregard for established procedures – politically connected private sector firms are awarded contracts without tendering or breach of contract clauses. Crony capitalism at its finest.

The government has accused those calling out the corrupt Covid contracts of trying to “use the judicial process to embarrass the government at a time of national crisis”. Given the level of corruption being conducted under cover of the emergency, they could be forgiven for this view: transparency would indeed be extremely embarrassing.

But we must demand transparency and insist that taxpayers money is not spent lining the pockets of politically connected friends and relations of this corrupt Tory government.

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