The UK government acted unlawfully by not being transparent about contracts it awarded for millions of pounds worth of PPE, face masks, and medical gowns to help fight Covid-19, a High Court judge ruled on Friday.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was ruled to have breached his legal obligation to disclose details of contracts the government had awarded within 30 days of decisions being made.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which Hancock heads, argued that it could not publish its contract award notices on time, given the emergency nature of government actions during the pandemic.
The legal challenge against the Conservative government was brought by campaign group, the Good Law Project, along with opposition MPs, Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, and Layla Moran of the Liberal Democrats.
In the ruling, Judge Chamberlain said Hancock had spent “vast quantities of public money” during the pandemic, but that government procurement had been shielded so contracts could not be scrutinised by MPs or the National Audit Office.
“The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on, and how the relevant contracts were awarded,” he said.
The DHSC’s court papers revealed that the department has spent over £17 billion ($23.8 billion) on pandemic-related contracts during the 2020/21 financial year, but, according to the Good Law Project, only £10.6 billion ($14.9 billion) of the contracts were disclosed.
“We would rather that we didn’t have repeatedly to expose Government’s illegality through the Courts,” the Good Law Project’s director, Jo Maugham QC, wrote on Twitter after the ruling.
“We would rather it came clean – and resolved to improve. We have written to Matt Hancock inviting him to do just that so we can stand down our lawyers.”
The government has drawn fierce criticism over its Covid-related procurement, while Hancock was accused last November of awarding a contract to his former neighbour Alex Bourne via WhatsApp, despite him not having any relevant previous experience.
Bourne, who co-ran the Cock Inn pub near the secretary of state’s former constituency home in Suffolk, was given a contract to supply medical-grade vials for Covid-19 test kits, according to a report in the Guardian.
The DHSC also came under the spotlight last week for its bungling of PPE supplies, when the Audit Office’s auditor general told MPs that the government had to draft in outside consultants to help track down billions of pounds worth of missing PPE that can’t currently be accounted for.
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