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UK government fails to publish details of £4bn Covid contracts with private firms

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The government has failed to publish any information about £4bn of Covid-related contracts awarded to private companies, in what appears to be a continuing breach of UK law.

The gap was uncovered by campaign group the Good Law Project, which along with a cross-party group of MPs, is suing the health secretary, Matt Hancock, in the high court. They are accusing his ministry of an “egregious and widespread failure to comply with legal duties and established policies”.

The group is warning of a “transparency gap” and is pushing for an independent judge-led inquiry into the billions spent on personal protective equipment, medicines and virus testing and tracing since the pandemic began.

In a legal filing in the case, dated 30 October, government lawyers revealed that £17bn had been spent by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on Covid-related goods and services since the start of the financial year in April. However, to date civil servants in Hancock’s ministry have only released details of £12.4bn in Covid-related contracts for that period – leaving £4.6bn unaccounted for.

The gap narrowed last week after the department rushed out details of £1.6bn in contracts. Many of the new deals are for the purchase of rapid test kits of the kind being used in Liverpool’s city-wide testing effort.

Government departments are required by law to publish details of contracts no later 30 days after awarding them. The measures are designed to reduce the risk of fraud and improve value for money by allowing proper scrutiny of how taxpayer cash is spent.

Notices alerting the public to awards over a certain value by publicly funded bodies appear on a European database, Tenders Electronic Daily, and on the UK’s own Contracts Finder website.

Meanwhile, government guidance advises civil servants to publish the contracts themselves within 20 days.

“There is overwhelming evidence that entities connected to key government figures have made staggering fortunes from these procurement contracts,” said Jolyon Maugham, founder of the Good Law Project. “There is a clear public interest in us knowing promptly, whilst those contracts can still be challenged, who benefited and to the tune of how much.”