The COVID-19 crisis has revealed public procurement problems across the Western world

Procurement problems are hardly a new issue for the British public. On topics as wide-ranging as HS2 rail-transport delays to the backlog of trainees in the (subcontracted) Military Flying Training System, external contracts have paralysed the UK government at great cost to both its political goals and the public purse. This has severe consequences: it makes the public sceptical of necessary reform and provides a sometimes foolhardy impetus to bring complicated tasks back in-house.

Two events during the pandemic, one in Britain, the other across the Channel, have illustrated how severe the extent of this problem is. First, the provision of substandard school meals by Chartwells not only compromised a core political objective ‚’ safeguarding the nutritional health of the next generation ‚’ but rightly offended the public‚’s sense of British values and dignity.

Second, the EU‚’s AstraZeneca vaccine scandal has illustrated the risks of unaccountability. Given the lack of clarity around vaccine yield proportions, it is clear in hindsight that AstraZeneca‚’s best efforts to produce 61 million doses hinged on an insecure estimate. Despite the EU‚’s sturm und drang surrounding export controls, it has yet to impose meaningful financial penalties on AstraZeneca for breach of contract, or pursue legal action against its representatives for pursuing a contract it either knew to be unfulfillable or did not know whether it could fulfil. If that continues, AstraZeneca‚’s failure to fulfil will be without consequence.

Across the West, this issue is metastasising into a tumour at the heart of government. A cruel cycle has the public overpaying for private sector contracts (often with a finer eye for corporate pedigree than relevant experience), while pay structures in the civil service all but halt the development of effective ‚’in-house‚’ alternatives. In extreme, this will compromise core government activity, as it has in the US




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