Dozens of contracts agreed by ministers to secure medical equipment during the coronavirus pandemic remain unpublished despite Boris Johnson telling MPs the details “are there on the record for everybody to see”.
The revelation comes after a High Court judge found Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully by handing out contracts without publishing details in a timely way after a case was brought against the government by the Good Law Project.
Mr Justice Chamberlain told the court last month the health secretary should have complied with government transparency principles, requiring the publication contract details within 30 days of them being awarded.
When challenged on the issue in the Commons on 22 February, the prime minister claimed, “all the details are on the record” and later insisted: “The contracts are there on the record for everybody to see”.
However, the Good Law Project told the BBC that Mr Johnson’s comments were “not true”. Just three days after his remarks, government lawyers told the organisation that out of 708 contracts for suppliers and services relating to pandemic and signed before 7 October 2020, 100 were still to be published.
Gemma Abbott, the legal director of the Good Law Project, said: “Unless contract details are published, they cannot be properly scrutinised — there’s no way of knowing where taxpayers’ money is going and why.
“Billions have been spent with those linked to the Conservative Party and vast sums wasted on PPE that isn’t fit for purpose,” she added.
“We have a government, and a prime minister, contemptuous of transparency and apparently allergic to accountability. The very least that the public deserves now is the truth.”
Last year, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) examined how firms were awarded contracts — including many without competition — worth £18 billion to secure essentials such as PPE equipment in the initial months of the pandemic.
It criticised an “inadequate” documentation of cases and noted that a cross-government PPE team established a “high priority lane” to deal with leads from officials in government, ministers’ offices, MPs, peers, senior NHS staff and other health professionals.
The NAO also noted: “A number of contracts were awarded retrospectively, or have not been published in a timely manner.
“This has diminished public transparency, and the lack of adequate documentation means we cannot give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases.
“While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, there are standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust.”
A government spokesperson told The Independent: “We have been working tirelessly to deliver what is needed to protect our health and social care staff throughout this pandemic, within very short timescales and against a backdrop of unparalleled global demand.
“This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public. We are committed to publishing all contracts and to date we have published 99 per cent of these in the official journal of the EU and we are working to publish outstanding contracts as soon as possible”.
“As the 2020 NAO report recognised, all of the NHS providers audited were always able to get what they needed in time, thanks to the effort of government, the NHS, Armed Forces, civil servants and industry, who delivered over 8.8 billion items of PPE to the frontline at record speed.”