The government has published a document, providing further information about the procurement of critical testing equipment and services during the early months of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020.The document outlines the challenges of the situation for procurement:
"The exceptional circumstances in the early months of the pandemic meant there was significant global demand for testing goods and services, so the government had to procure these quickly to ensure the UK had the resources it needed.
To do this, testing goods and services were procured under Regulation 32 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. This allows public bodies to award contracts in exceptional circumstances such as an extreme emergency or because a product is only available from a particular supplier.
Most contracts awarded in the early months of the pandemic were awarded through this necessary route but as DHSC systems developed and market capacity grew, a new national framework and purchasing system was established to ensure competition when awarding contracts.
By 2022, the majority of testing contracts were awarded using the new framework and system, with very few contracts awarded using these emergency regulations. Where it is still applied, it is almost always because the product needed can only be provided by a particular supplier."
The documentation goes on to outline the Government's approach to fulfilling procurement contracts, explaining that partnerships were critical to the programme and that the Government asked existing suppliers for support and a call was put out for wider industry to support the nation. Many suppliers provided services and goods to the wider COVID-19 response as well as to the testing network.One of the areas the Government has received heavy criticism is in the VIP fast lane contracts, often given to Tory supporters who were close to Government, and in some cases whose provision of equipment failed to meet standards or was otherwise unsuitable. Certainly the UK was not alone in its challenges, with many Government's transparency being tested.
According to the Government statement, offers of assistance to supply PPE equipment were received through a purpose built GOV.UK portal and 4 dedicated DHSC mailboxes. Some offers of help were also routed through ministers’ offices, parliamentarians or senior officials.The 4 shared mailboxes used were for ‘COVID testing priority contacts’, ‘COVID19 innovation’, ‘COVID testing triage’ and ‘COVID19 offer triage’. These inboxes were used at different points between March 2020 and October 2021 to capture suppliers offering support for testing. Some suppliers emailed their offer directly to a mailbox (self-referring); offers from others were forwarded into a mailbox, or to relevant officials working on the response by ministers, parliamentarians and other parts of government.
Even though the National Audit Office criticised the use of a fast track procurement process during covid, this document attests that all offers of support were assessed and triaged by civil servants working on testing procurement and there was no separate VIP route or channel for testing suppliers, and that ministers were not involved in the evaluation or procurement process for contracts. However, for emails related to specific, urgent offers or to services or products that were high priority or were from a supplier with an established reputation in diagnostics, or wider health services, the email could be tagged as “VIP”, “Fast Track” or “Priority”. These tags helped the DHSC team to identify which offers and emails should be prioritised to ensure viable offers progressed quickly to meet the nation’s need for testing. The tags also helped officials to provide progress reports to ministers and senior colleagues. The tags purportedly did not relate to the status of the referrer and suppliers were not aware of the tagging system.
All offers were purportedly evaluated by commercial professionals against the same criteria, assessing value for money and their ability to meet the government’s rigorous standards and deliver the service required. The COVID-19 testing services provided by suppliers were often for complex or innovative scientific products or services so where necessary, an expert technical evaluation process was also carried out.
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