Press release 12th Jan 2022

Court rules PPE VIP-lane ‘unlawful’ - public procurement must be examined in the COVID-19 inquiry

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Track and Trace

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The COVID-19 pandemic has required a rapid public health response on a scale and speed unseen in modern times. Whilst those procuring goods and services have sought to expedite the emergency response, we observe a pattern of behaviour whereby critical safeguards for protecting the public purse have been thrown aside without adequate justification.

Emerging evidence from investigative journalists, the National Audit Office (NAO) and public interest litigation highlights these in startling detail.

Using evidence from these reports and analysis of available data, we identify two key issues concerning procurement practices during the pandemic. We also identify a third, more general issue relating to the mechanisms for ensuring integrity in public office.

From these findings, we propose ten steps that could address some of the concerns raised over the last year, and help avoid similar mistakes being repeated in the future. None of these are particularly costly, with three either complementing or endorsing proposals already included in the UK Government’s Green Paper for reform. If implemented effectively, they have the potential to increase transparency, deliver greater accountability, and reduce the risks associated with contracting, both during a crisis and in normal times.

We hope this provides a critical, yet constructive contribution towards recent debates. Some of what we propose may be uncomfortable for those of which we ask it – subjecting oneself to greater scrutiny is seldom a natural imperative for those in public office – yet these steps are critical to setting the record straight.

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January 12, 2022 – Transparency International UK welcomes today’s High Court ruling that the VIP lane was unlawful, and urges the UK government to include public contracting during the pandemic within the terms of the COVID-19 Inquiry, due to start in Spring 2022, as soon as possible.

The judgement ruled that the VIP lane conferred preferential treatment on bids and that the approach for allocating offers to the VIP lane was flawed. In April 2021, our Track and Trace report highlighted concerns over what we found to be ‘systemic bias’. Overall, the research found that one in five PPE contracts awarded from February to November 2020 raised one or more red flags for corruption.

We have urged the government to be transparent and accountable over decisions made during the pandemic, yet these answers have not been forthcoming. Questions still remain over fundamental elements of the VIP lane, such as who knew about it, when and why them and not others.

Today’s ruling reiterates the importance of including public procurement in the COVID-19 Inquiry, due to start in Spring 2022. The Terms of Reference for the Inquiry are yet to be published, despite questions from parliamentarians. Like the Institute for Government, we are calling for public procurement to be included within the Terms of Reference for the Inquiry, and hope that the recently appointed Chair will have a role in shaping them.

Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive, Transparency International UK said:

“Today’s judgement confirms our view that the VIP lane for triaging PPE offers amounted to systemic bias in the awarding of COVID contracts. To expedite suppliers based on their political connections rather than objective criteria raises serious questions over the government’s approach to the management of public funds. It is high time ministers provided full and candid disclosure over their use of taxpayers’ money during the pandemic. 

Ministers have repeatedly brushed aside key questions from MPs over the VIP lane. The government's resistance in the Commons and in court to disclosing how billions of pounds of public money were spent in this way gives the overwhelming impression that there is something to hide. To set the record straight, the award of contracts relating to the pandemic should form a core part of the forthcoming independent inquiry.”