The UK’s National Audit Office recently refused to sign-off the accounts of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for 2021-22.
“A lack of sufficient, appropriate audit evidence and significant shortcomings in financial control and governance” meant that NAO head Gareth Davies was unable to provide an audit opinion on the accounts of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). Even taking the “challenging context” into account, Davies called the UKHSA’s inability to produce auditable accounts “unacceptable”.
UKHSA replaced Public Health England in October 2021. That was a challenging time because of Covid, but even so, the financial management of the new organisation appears to have been chaotic.
“UKHSA was unable to provide the NAO with sufficient evidence to support balances relating to £794m of stock, and £1.5bn of accruals from NHS Test and Trace, which were transferred from DHSC, or to support £254m of stockpiled goods transferred from its predecessor organisation, Public Health England (PHE). DHSC had not resolved issues with its management systems, financial controls and records, which the C&AG reflected in his report on DHSC’s 2020-21 accounts”.
Internal controls were lacking; there weren’t even effective bank reconciliations, something the smallest business would expect to have in place. “Shortcomings in the introduction of a new accounting system, combined with a reliance on temporary staff, meant that UKHSA was not able to provide the NAO with evidence to support key balances and transactions in the accounts”. So goodness knows what was happening in terms of errors or even fraud at that time.
Moving on to the wider Department, NAO “was unable to obtain the evidence needed to support £1.36bn of stock, due to issues related to inventory management”.
DHSC did not carry out end of year stock counts to check items including PPE (personal protective equipment) and Covid lateral flow tests, “as it was unable to access 5 billion items (which cost £2.9bn) that were stored in containers”. Whilst that might be excusable, or at least understandable, there was also a lack of adequate processes to check stock in warehouses, which is less so.
There was also a write-down of £6bn in terms of pandemic related purchases. £2.5bn of that is items already purchased but no longer usable, or where the market price is now way below what was paid. £3.5bn was a write-down on PPE, vaccines and medication which DHSC has committed to purchase, but no longer expects to use.
“Taken together with the £8.9bn written-down in its 2020-21 accounts, over the last two financial years, DHSC has now reported £14.9bn of write-down costs related to PPE and other items”.
And if you are thinking, well, at least that’s it, there is more salt to rub into the wounds.
“DHSC estimates that ongoing storage and disposal costs for its excess and unusable PPE will be £319m. At the end of March 2022, the estimated monthly spending on storing PPE was £24m.”
So that’s £15 billion of taxpayer’s money gone. It has been in effect a huge transfer of wealth from the UK economy and citizens to a range of largely non-UK manufacturers and of course to a whole bunch of crooks, conmen, exploitative agents and middlemen, many with political connections, and the occasional genuine business person, all involved in the supply chain somewhere. Every issue of Private Eye seems to have more examples – taken from the company accounts that are now emerging – of firms making huge margins, often 50% or more, on the PPE, tests and so on that were supplied during the pandemic.
We’ve discussed the reasons for this disaster many times over the last couple of years A failure to prepare and mis-management of the emergency PPE stocks; catastrophically bad demand planning which led to huge over-ordering; incompetence in terms of drawing up specifications; a lack of even basic negotiation, cost analysis and supplier due diligence; political interference and nepotism; these drivers all feature. But as the NAO lays out the cold, hard numbers, we can say with confidence that when we construct the league table for the all-time costliest failures in UK public procurement, this is right at the top.