LONDON (Reuters) – The British government broke the law by failing to publish details of billions of pounds of spending on personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, a London court ruled on Friday.
As COVID-19 swept across the world last year, Britain scrambled to secure protective gear for medics and nurses on the front line.
The Good Law Project, a campaign group, and three opposition politicians brought a judicial review seeking information about undisclosed deals with firms that had no medical procurement expertise and, in some cases, delivered defective protective equipment.
Martin Chamberlain, a High Court judge, said the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, failed to comply with a public procurement law that requires the government to publish contract awards within 30 days.
“The Secretary of State spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020,” Chamberlain said. “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.”
The health ministry said it had needed to move within very short timescales and against unparalleled global demand.
“This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS (National Health Service) workers and the public,” a spokesman said.
The National Audit Office said last year there had been a lack of transparency and a failure to explain why certain suppliers were chosen, or how any conflict of interest was dealt with, in procurement deals between March and the end of July worth about 18 billion pounds ($25.23 billion).
Opposition politicians have accused the government of running a “chumocracy” with contracts, including for the purchase of what turned out to be unusable PPE, and appointments made to those with family or business links to those in power.
After the ruling Jolyon Maugham, the founder of the Good Law Project, wrote to the health minister asking him to publish the contracts, including those given under a high-priority lane set up to assess potential leads from government officials.
The judge said the health ministry could have avoided running up a legal bill amounting to 207,000 pounds if it had “candidly” admitted that transparency rules had been broken.
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; editing by William James and Jonathan Oatis)