A NEW YORK Times investigation into the UK’s handling of the pandemic reveals misuse of government funds on a massive scale during its Covid-19 response, calling it ‘one of the greatest spending sprees in Britain’s postwar era.’
The report, titled ‘Waste, Negligence and Cronyism: Inside Britain’s Pandemic Spending’, was published on Thursday.
In it, the NY Times alleges that ‘about $11 billion went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy.’
The US newspaper based its findings mainly on data provided by Tussell, a research firm that has been tracking UK government contracts and spending in response to Covid-19 since the pandemic began in February.
According to Tussell, the government has spent almost $22 billion on personal protective equipment (PPE), its Test and Trace Programme and hospital supplies.
The NY Times analysed the list of companies that had been given contracts to supply PPE and found that billions of dollars in contracts were given to companies connected to, among others, Conservative politician and former investment banker Lord Paul Deighton, who it alleges quickly awarded massive contracts to multiple firms where he had financial interests or his own person connections.
At the same time, many companies that were ‘often better qualified’ to produce PPE but went through the usual channels, submitting applications for contracts online, didn’t even receive a response, according to the NY Times.
It also alleges that in the frenzy of scrambling for supplies at the beginning of the pandemic in March, the government ignored the rules of awarding procurement contracts, failing to carry out proper checks and setting up a ‘VIP lane’ for streamlining applications of well-connected firms.
‘Dozens of companies that won a total of $3.6 billion in contracts had poor credit, and several had declared assets of just $2 or $3 each. Others had histories of fraud, human rights abuses, tax evasion or other serious controversies,’ the report alleges.
Astonishingly, a few were even set up ‘on the spur of the moment or had no relevant experience’ and yet still won contracts, it further alleged.
The NY Times gives one example where a company called Ayanda Capital, whose senior board adviser was also a member of a government body, received nearly $340 million to provide PPE.
When it delivered $200 million worth of face masks, it turned out that they were not fit for purpose because ‘the ear loop fastenings did not match the government’s new requirements.’
The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, the body in charge of procurement, disputed the claims and issued a statement to the NY Times, insisting that all contracts were awarded with ‘proper due diligence.’
Labour Party MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, expressed her frustration to the NY Times: ‘The government had license to act fast because it was a pandemic, but we didn’t give them permission to act fast and loose with public money.’
This isn’t the first time the media has cried foul at the UK government’s coronavirus response measures.
In November, the Guardian reported that the chair of the vaccine taskforce, Kate Bingham, came under scrutiny for allocating more than £670,000 ($900,000) to pay public relations consultants.
Bingham just so happened to be married to a Tory MP who went to Eton college at the same time as Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and she herself attended a private school with Johnson’s sister.
Also last month, the Financial Times reported that the UK had spent more money on combating Covid-19 than ‘almost all comparable countries but still languishes towards the bottom of league tables of economic performance in 2020 and deaths caused by the virus.’
The FT quoted the independent Office for Budget Responsibility as saying that the British economy was set to shrink by 11.3 per cent in 2020, and that the government would need to borrow some 80 per cent more than other leading G7 countries to cover its pandemic-related financial problems, while the UK death toll from Covid-19 was expected to be 60 per cent higher.
The publication said the poor performance was due to the government’s failure to stop the virus from spreading in the spring and autumn.
The total number of coronavirus infections in the UK now stands at almost 2 million, making it the seventh worst-affected country worldwide, with more than 65,000 deaths to date.
Meanwhile the Royal College (RCN) of Nursing has warned of the risks of relaxing rules over Christmas.
The RCN warned on Thursday that unless care is taken it could lead to an ‘unrelenting tsunami’ of cases as we enter the new year.
Dame Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: ‘With a week to go until Christmas and the virus spreading rapidly in many parts of the country, Ministers should give fresh and more detailed advice to the public.
‘After a difficult year, it is everybody’s instinct to want to be together and see loved ones – especially those who live far apart or feel isolated.
‘But what is at stake is coming into sharp focus.
‘Travelling and family visits associated with this time of year will undoubtedly lead to more cases, more pressure on NHS and care services, and more deaths.
‘By turning the second and third waves into an unrelenting tsunami, we would begin 2021 in the worst possible way.
‘Nursing staff are telling me they will not enjoy Christmas knowing what awaits them in January.
‘After caring for tens of thousands of positive cases, supporting families at their lowest ebb and even losing our own colleagues, a quieter festive period is not a sacrifice.
‘Governments should be clearer about the risks – not just the rules – and people must make informed choices. The data and the science give cause for vigilance, not relief.
‘This virus isn’t taking Christmas off and nor should we. 2021 is a year that holds so much promise – we have all lost too much in 2020 to set ourselves back now.’
- Commenting on the publication by the Office for National Statistics of Covid-19 School Infection Survey Round 1, England: November 2020, the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union, Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted, said: ‘The National Education Union is committed to following the science and we welcome the publication of the School Infection Survey (SIS) by the Office for National Statistics.
‘For us, the central finding of the School Infection Survey is that the rates amongst pupils in schools and the staff, who work with them, are very close. This is what you would expect if pupils were transmitting to and receiving from staff. This finding should not come as a surprise given the difficulty of social distancing in our crowded classrooms and the absence of PPE in the classroom setting.
‘Combined with the higher rates amongst school age students this is a significant finding which requires action by the government to ensure the safety of school staff . . .
‘. . . In the weeks the SIS was carried out, around 8% of pupils were absent from school because they had a confirmed case of coronavirus, a suspected case or had been in contact with a case.
‘In addition, about 8% of teachers were absent.’