Covid inquiry to look at whether some PPE contracts were ‘fraudulent’
The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has begun hearings into the way £15 billion of taxpayers’ money was spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic, amid claims of fraud and waste.
The inquiry will examine the controversial “high priority lane”, which was used to deal with suppliers who approached MPs, ministers and officials.
The hearings will examine how the balance was struck between the need to find PPE at a time of urgent need and the responsibility to provide value for money and transparency.
It will examine whether some contracts were fraudulent or had prices which were inflated.
Inquiry counsel Richard Wald KC said: “The emergence of Covid-19 in December 2019 presented this country with an unprecedented procurement challenge.
“Some figures illustrate the scale of this challenge: early indications are that the Department for Health and Social Care spent in the region of £15 billion on PPE procurement through the lifetime of the pandemic, during which over 30 billion items of PPE were purchased and over 25 billion items of PPE distributed to people dealing with it.”
Baroness Heather Hallett’s inquiry is looking at procurement in the fifth module of its work.
Opening the module’s preliminary hearing, Mr Wald said: “Early indications suggest that a number of PPE contracts awarded were later disputed.
“The inquiry is also investigating concerns that some contracts awarded may have been fraudulent, that prices were inflated, or that PPE was defective or unusable.”
Mr Wald confirmed the inquiry would also be “scrutinising the reasons for, and operation of, the high priority lane” as part of its work.
The National Audit Office concluded in 2020 that “standards of transparency and documentation” were not met as officials scrambled to secure supplies of PPE.
Meanwhile, accounts published by the inquiry showed that it had cost taxpayers more than £78.5 million in total by the end of 2023.
Almost £22.5 million was spent from October to December 2023 alone.
Lady Hallett has been paid £332,000 since her appointment in December 2021, and claimed £7,000 in expenses.
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