Campaigners are calling for an end to the award of multi-million pound coronavirus contracts without competition, after the renewal of a deal with a company whose testing kits had to be recalled over the summer.
The £347m contract with Conservative-linked private healthcare company Randox is a six-month extension of an existing £133m deal in March. Both were awarded without a competitive tendering process.
Questions were also being asked about the role of Tory MP Owen Paterson, who is paid £100,000 a year to act as a consultant for Randox and took part in a call, revealed by The Guardian, between the company and Lord Bethell, the health minister responsible for testing supplies.
Northern Ireland-based Randox is responsible for providing tens of thousands of testing kits each week to care homes and processing them in its Co Antrim labs.
Some 750,000 kits had to be withdrawn in July over concerns they were not sterile, forcing the government to delay plans to provide regular testing for care home residents and staff in England.
Lord Bethell yesterday told parliament that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has awarded 289 contracts worth a total of £6.1bn to private companies for test and trace supplies and 370 contracts worth £8.3bn for the delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE).
He said: “A direct award of a contract - an option available under the procurement regulations in cases of extreme urgency - has been used in the great majority of these cases.”
Calling for a return to competitive tendering, Steve Goodrich of Transparency International UK said: “That hundreds of millions of pounds of procurement can go ahead without even a whiff of competition is bad enough, yet when these deals are awarded to those with political connections it reeks of cronyism.
“Government really needs to get back into the habit of competitive tendering or risk irreparably damaging confidence in its prudent management of public money.”
Commenting on Mr Paterson’s role in the phone call, he added: “MPs and peers must scrupulously avoid the perception – or reality – that they are working as lobbyists for private interests.
“When parliamentarians with outside employment meet government concerning their client’s commercial operations, it looks an awful lot like they’re trying to influence ministers in return for payment. Parliament should tighten its rules to make it absolutely clear that legislators must not also be lobbyists.”
A DHSC spokesperson said: “The UK government is continuing to scale up testing capacity for coronavirus, to protect the vulnerable, support our NHS, and ultimately save lives.
“This is a national effort, and we are proud to be working with a number of partners on innovative solutions to increase capacity where it is needed and introduce larger scale testing.
“This includes an extension of an existing contract with Randox Laboratories, as we continue to increase testing capacity.”
Randox managing director Dr Peter FitzGerald said: “We take very seriously our responsibility to ensure that vital laboratory testing for Covid-19 continues and expands during the winter months.
“We have extensively ramped up our capacity and made significant private investment in order to fulfil and exceed our commitment to the national testing programme. All at Randox are fully committed to supporting the programme, and we look forward to continuing to play our role, which is crucial to the economic and social wellbeing of the nation.”
There was no immediate response from Mr Paterson to a request for a comment.
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