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In the current issue of Private Eye magazine  – only on sale for another few days so hurry if you want to buy it – there is a special 8 page supplement titled “Profits of Doom”, covering the “bad buying” that went on in UK government around the pandemic, principally PPE (personal protective equipment), but also test kits and the track and trace programme.

Several procurement leaders get a mention, including Gareth Rhys Williams, Government’s Chief Commercial Officer, and Steve Oldfield and Ed James at the Department of Health.  I suspect there are others who actually had more to do with the PPE procurement waste but have escaped that attention …

If you have followed these stories in the media and on this website to some extent, much of the Private Eye report won’t be new to you.  But putting it all together does increase the sense of anger that most of us will feel about the vast sums of money extracted from the British taxpayer by certain firms and individuals, in return for very little effort. According to the magazine, one firm, Primer Design Ltd, went from a profit of £1.3m a year before Covid to making £178.2 million in the first Covid period.

Individuals did well too. Andrew Mills, who had been an adviser to government himself, made £32.4 million for doing very little as a middleman for Ayanda Capital, whose bosses also made tens of millions on PPE supply. Even the consulting firms raked in the cash working on various covid related tasks including the pretty useless track and trace programme, with Deloitte partners making record earnings of around £1 million each last year.

It is clear that cost really didn’t matter when the PPE shortage was at its worst last year, and to some extent that is understandable.  There is still some mystery about the demand forecasts that led to chronic over-ordering; that factor alone cost the taxpayer billions, but there has been little real insight into what went wrong there.

But why the procurement teams didn’t at least try and examine the margins made by the middlemen and agents, I don’t know. If the buyers had insisted on seeing a price breakdown, or set a maximum mark-up over factory gate prices, would Andrew Mills and others really have walked away from the deal?  They won the contracts in the first place because of their political connections that got them onto the “VIP route”, which gave priority to their supply proposals, so it is hard to see that they could have instantly taken their offer to another country.

Instead, they were allowed to make tens or hundreds of millions in profit by exploiting the naivety of the procurement operation, which seemed to focus almost entirely on just buying as much stuff as possible. Then we have the Randox contracts for test kits and analysis, where the picture is even murkier. Member of Parliament Owen Patterson was paid as an adviser by that diagnostics firm, and records of calls between him, the firm and health Minister Lord Bethell, have been “lost” apparently.  Randox was given £600 million worth of contracts without any tendering or competitive process. And it won a testing contract worth £133m, just days before government officials confirmed it did not actually have enough equipment to deliver the work, according to documents now released.

It would be good to think that some of those who profited from the pandemic and in effect took advantage of the taxpayer might lose friends because of their actions. But the culture in the financial world and “the city” is such that I suspect they will be celebrated as great examples of entrepreneurial spirit, exploiting a situation (and their connections) cleverly to make money.

Even if there wasn’t overt brown-paper-envelopes-type corruption here (or none that has been discovered yet, at least), sometimes it is just very easy to hate capitalism!

Another UK pandemic-related supplier appointed in haste without competition (and perhaps without proper due diligence) appears to have failed in performance terms.

Immensa Health Clinic is being investigated scrutiny after the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) found at least 43,000 people may have been given a “false negative” Covid test result.  That has serious consequences – if those people carried on working and mixing with others, when they were actually suffering with Covid, they may have passed on the virus to others.

That has led to operations at the firm’s privately run laboratory in Wolverhampton being suspended.  The NHS test and trace operation said about 400,000 samples had been processed by that lab, most of which will have been negative results, but around 43,000 people, mainly in the south of England, may have been given incorrect negative PCR test results between 8 September and 12 October. It doesn’t appear to be the kits but rather the analysis at fault – a people problem rather than an equipment issue, by the sound of it.

Immensa was only founded in May 2020 by Andrea Riposati, a former management consultant and owner of a DNA testing company. He is also the founder of Dante Labs, which is under investigation in the UK by the Competition and Markets Authority over its PCR travel tests.  But within three months of Immensa’s birth, it won a £119m PCR testing contract awarded by the Department of Health (DHSC).  That was awarded without being put out to tender, like so many contracts we have seen though the pandemic, some genuinely urgent and others less so.

Back in January this year, the Sun on Sunday newspaper found that workers at the Wolverhampton lab appeared to be sleeping, fighting, playing football and drinking whilst “working”.  (Pretty much like life in the civil service, really). The government said then it would speak to Immensa as it took “evidence of misconduct extremely seriously”.  Despite this, Immensa won another contract for £50 million in July.

We haven’t seen any suggestion of corruption, officials or politicians on the make, or Immensa doing anything dodgy. But again, there will be reasonable questions asked about lack of competition, lack of robust contract management, and why even after the warning signs, further work was given to the firm.

Which brings me on to the recent report, Coronavirus: Lessons learned to date, from the UK parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, and elected members from all parties.  The report is rightly very positive about the vaccine procurement programme.

The procurement model deployed by the Vaccine Taskforce of making decisions at risk, outside conventional procurement procedures, proved highly effective. Lessons from this success should be applied to other areas of Government procurement.

I’m in agreement with looking at useful lessons learnt, but we can’t be naïve about this. This quote about the way vaccines were bought also comes from the report.

Dominic Cummings said: “Patrick Vallance and his team were saying that the actual expected return on this was so high that even if it does turn out to be wasted billions, it is still a good gamble in the end.”

This is absolutely true, and highlights the key issue of risk and reward.  The fact is, there are very few other purchases by government where the balance is similar to the vaccine example. Getting vaccines faster certainly saved thousands of lives and (possibly) billions of pounds in government expenditure.  But taking risks in procurement of other goods or services just does not have the same potential.  Who would seriously place orders for five different armoured vehicles, IT systems or management consultancy firms just in the hope that one or two of them worked out well?

There may well be learnings around how the vaccine team was run, but talk of getting rid of procurement process, rules and so on is unwise and will lead to waste and, unfortunately, to more fraud and corruption. More transparency would help alleviate some of those risks (see my paper for Reform here), but I suspect some of those in favour of radical procurement change are thinking more of the millions they, their chums and associates can extract from the public purse.    

UK government procurement related to the pandemic continues to be a source of some concern and confusion. More consulting contracts were published on the Contracts Finder website last week, showing the vast sums of money that are finding their way into the pockets of the partners at major consulting firms.

Deloitte were awarded two further consultancy contracts, via a call off from a Framework Agreement, worth a total of £8.7 million for:  “Buy Support for Ventilators – ICU equipment & consumables, ventilator sourcing, hard to source products” (£6.7m) and  “Support programme delivery including the identification and procurement of PPE” (£2.2m).

Two other unusual consultancy contracts were awarded to Boston Consulting Group to support the chaotic Test & Trace programme. That represented £4,992,059 for “strategic support” and £4,996,056 for “digital support” (very precise values!)

We don’t know whether there was any competitive process – for those of you who aren’t public procurement experts, you are not allowed to simply choose a “random” or favoured supplier from a “Framework” in most cases without running a competition between firms who are listed on it. Did that happen here? I have my doubts but we don’t know. There have also been comments from within the NHS suggesting that no-one quite knows what Deloitte actually did in terms of ventilator procurement. But hey, it was only £6.7 million.

But there was some good news as well. Gareth Davies, who heads up the UK National Audit Office, was interviewed by the Guardian and amongst other points, he confirmed that a report into government procurement processes during the coronavirus pandemic would be published later this year.

“We’re looking at the procurement process, a lot of public comments and concern about the transparency of some of the procurement contracts around PPE and other areas. We’re doing a detailed piece of work,” he said.

So here are a few of the questions NAO might like to ask the buyers of those consultancy services if they choose to examine that area in particular.

  • Did you understand what it was you really wanted to buy?
  • Did you consider the market in an appropriate manner, and use competition to arrive at the best fit / best value supplier to meet your needs?  
  • Do you understand the difference between the three basic reasons or needs behind buying consulting services – specialist knowledge & skills, intellectual horsepower, or execution / implementation capability?   
  • Did you think about the different commercial mechanisms and models – fixed price, time and materials, target pricing and all the variations? Are you clear you chose the most appropriate for your contract?
  • Do you understand the economics of consulting firms and therefore did you use that to negotiate confidently on daily rates (or fixed price)?
  • If you didn’t use competition, how did you arrive at a fair price for the work?
  • Did you make the deliverables, outputs or outcomes that you were expecting very clear?
  • Did you define the contract management process and the interim reporting that you wanted to see from the firm, and then follow through with professional contract management practice?

Let’s hope those responsible for spending money with these firms avoided Bad Buying and can answer these questions confidently and robustly.