Comment

The real coronavirus scandal is not corruption. It's shocking state failure

The fact that our state does not promote and provide the skills needed to do the job is the really serious scandal of the Covid pandemic

You’ll never believe it. The Government’s been buying medical equipment from a pest control company! It’s been getting face masks from a currency trader! They’ve even bought their hospital ventilators from a vacuum cleaner salesman!

Does it sound absurd? Yes. Chaotic? Of course. Corrupt? I’m not so sure.

The Government has been taking heat this week after a National Audit Office report found that it doled out over £10 billion of public money to suppliers, mostly for personal protective equipment (PPE), without following normal procurement procedures. Sir Keir Starmer devoted two of his six Prime Minister’s questions to the topic and a non-profit called the Good Law Project has been issuing legal threats over allegedly dodgy contracts and incomplete disclosures.

Jolyon Maugham QC, who set up the Good Law Project in 2017 Credit: Handout

On the face of it, the scandal looks pretty bad. The NAO report revealed that the Government had two processing “lanes” for potential suppliers, normal and priority, and that suppliers could get into the “priority” lane by obtaining a referral from senior NHS staff, peers, MPs or ministers. A few cases involving contracts with companies that have a Tory connection have made this look like a good old-fashioned sleaze scandal, with the Conservative Party rewarding its donors and chums.

It’s all highly damaging, especially if you already believe, as many voters do, that the Tories are desperate to sell off the NHS for profit. Peer closely into the muddy waters, however, and you begin to realise this is the wrong way to view the scandal. It isn’t a story of corruption. It’s about a government that was poorly prepared, complacent and short-sighted about an impending catastrophe, and a mad scramble to catch up when it realised its mistake.

The first clue that this isn’t primarily about sleaze is in the NAO report itself. It criticises the Government for failing to record how it managed conflicts of interest, but then adds: “Notwithstanding… we found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions.” This line has unsurprisingly not been quoted much.

The report also takes a detailed look at a company called Pestfix, whose contract to supply PPE is the subject of potential litigation. Pestfix won its contract after being rushed through the Government supplier “priority lane” in April. So what nefarious, corrupt relationship had it used to get there? Erm, none. It was shunted into the priority lane by mistake.

Still, the clever clogs point out that it’s ridiculous for a government to ask a pest control supply company to supply medical equipment! What on earth were they thinking? Well, maybe they thought that a company supplying equipment to pest controllers, who deal with vermin they aren’t meant to touch, might know how to source PPE. This company also happened to have relationships with suppliers in China.

The critics next focus on blunders made in managing the contract. One involved a publication error: the Government misstated the value of the contract and only rectified the mistake two months later. Another involved a problem with the PPE. After receiving 600,000 face masks, the Government realised it had actually asked for masks using specifications that didn’t match its own published PPE standards. It must have been a sinking feeling. It admitted the error and Pestfix switched to procuring the correct type of mask, which it has done to the tune of millions.

I relay all this not to bore readers with details, but to illustrate the situation in which all of this supposed “corruption” was taking place. The Government spent the first two months of this year drifting carelessly towards catastrophe. Even as Asian governments were banning exports and cornering the global market for PPE, test machines and reagents, the UK did nothing. Then, in March, the disaster became visible. Hospitals ran dangerously low on kit, but almost all stocks had already been bought up. In a mad dash, the Department for Health had to negotiate 7,500 new contracts worth over £16 billion in under six months. That compares to 174 contracts worth £1.1 billion during the whole of last year.

In legal letters defending itself, the Government describes the mayhem. Whenever new stocks became available, they were gone within 24 hours, leaving little time for a tendering process. Anyone not offering cash upfront at inflated prices had no chance. Even then, most established suppliers had no capacity, so the Government issued a call for new suppliers with any contacts or manufacturing capacity to enter the market. At the time, this was viewed almost as heroic. Dyson was making ventilators, Church groups were sewing medical gowns, even “the queen’s couturier” Stewart Parvin was turning out scrubs.

None of this absolves the Government of responsibility for its screw-ups. And it’s perfectly legitimate for media, campaigners and the NAO to scrutinise those mistakes. But the lurid insinuations must not obscure errors that have actually had far greater consequences than any of the alleged “sleaze” uncovered so far.

Our Government is firstly guilty of a failure of planning and foresight, despite years of assurances that it viewed a pandemic as a top threat and was brilliantly prepared. Secondly, once panic set in, ministers and civil servants seem to have gravitated towards the familiar. Why, for example, should a referral by an MP make a supplier more credible and worthy of a “priority lane”, unless you have a rather blinkered view of the world? Why appoint Dido Harding, a mediocre crony, to lead test and trace rather than paying up for someone experienced from Singapore or Taiwan? Why in April was I able to find and interview a company called AITbiotech that was already supplying Covid tests to the Singaporean government and had spare capacity, which the Government not only hadn’t contacted but then failed to follow up with once I put them in touch?

I don’t believe the answers to these questions have much to do with corruption. I believe they show that a huge swathe of this country’s top administrators and ministers are just not up to the job. If we obsess over the idea of a conspiracy to milk taxpayers using a handful of companies among thousands with tenuous links to the Tory Party, we risk overlooking the more serious problem. Our institutions just aren’t very good.

By all means, prosecute corruption where it’s found, but let’s just not miss the bigger picture. Our state does not promote and provide the skills needed to do its job. That, rather than petty corruption, is the really serious scandal of the Covid pandemic.