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Government accused of playing 'fast and loose' with public money over COVID-testing contracts

10 months ago 55

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The government has been accused of playing "fast and loose" with public money after an audit found it did not properly document key decisions made around procuring COVID-19 tests.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, the government "had to move very fast" to increase testing capacity, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

As a result, between January 2020 and December 2021, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE) awarded 22 contracts to health company Randox - or its strategic partner, Qnostics Ltd - up to £776.9 million in value, the watchdog said.

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Almost all of these contracts were for the provision of COVID testing services.

The government did not disclose Randox's attendance at four ministerial meetings, as it should have done in line with transparency requirements, the NAO said.

Minutes were only kept for two of the eight meetings between ministers and Randox.

The report said: "The gaps in the audit trail mean that the NAO is not able to provide positive assurance in the normal way, but it has not seen any evidence that the government's contracts with Randox were awarded improperly."

Messages not passed on

The report also referenced "some private correspondence exchanges" between the then health secretary Matt Hancock and the then MP for North Shropshire, Owen Paterson, on private email and WhatsApp, which had only "recently been made available to the department".

Mr Paterson resigned from Parliament in November last year after he was found to have broken rules by repeatedly lobbying on behalf of Randox and another company, for which he was acting as a paid consultant.

"The then Secretary of State told us he did not forward all of these messages to the department at the time as they were not substantive discussions and so he was not required to do so," the report said.

The DHSC first awarded Randox a £132.4 million contract for testing services on 30 March 2020 - competitive tender was ruled out in a bid to move quickly.

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Inadequate record keeping

"The Department agreed to pay Randox a unit price of £49.60 per test for almost 2.7 million tests but could not provide us with any documentation on the negotiations for this contract award," the report said.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: "The overriding need to create a high volume, testing capacity rapidly at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that standard public procurement approaches were not appropriate. Even taking these exceptional circumstances into account, the documentation of the decision-making process for such large contracts was inadequate.

"Our previous reports on COVID-19-related procurement and those of Nigel Boardman have recommended improvements to ensure an adequate audit trail is maintained even when the priority is speed of action. Government has already started to implement some of these improvements, and we will follow up progress."

'Proper transparency by government is vital'

Labour MP, Meg Hillier, the chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said the government played "fast and loose" with spending public money.

"Government grasped the urgent need to increase the scale of testing early in the pandemic. But while it was fast on procurement, it was fast and loose on process," she said.

"The Randox contracts illustrate that proper transparency by government is vital. Government didn't document decisions properly and the public is right to raise questions about whether it was playing with a straight bat."

Randox said the lack of evidence of wrongdoing "vindicates" its insistence the process was in keeping with official protocols and said it welcomes the findings of the report.

A spokesperson for the company said: "This independent finding vindicates what both Randox and the government have always said, that these contracts were awarded on merit and in keeping with government protocols and regulations at a time of acute national emergency."

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"The report states that four ministerial meetings took place which were, apparently, not fully documented by the DHSC," they added.

"While we cannot comment on government minuting of meetings, Randox can categorically state that the awarding of contracts was not on the agenda at any of these meetings."

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