Politicians have wasted billions of euros in handing out contracts to friendly businessmen. The long list of coronavirus profiteers in the UK is growing with new revelations weekly. Added to gross policy errors at the beginning of the pandemic, the issue is embarrassing the Conservative government.
Brooks Newmark left Westminster in shame after a painful scandal. As secretary of state, the pious Catholic was tempted to send spicy photographs of himself to a journalist posing as a party activist. When an affair with a single mother came to light some time later, he resigned with his tail between his legs.
This poor background did not prevent the father of five children from winning a government contract worth 210 million euros for a client of his during the pandemic. Newmark worked as an advisor to businesswoman Zoe Ley, who had founded a firm to help foreign companies find lucrative deals for protective equipment.
To secure his bonus, Newmark contacted Health minister Matt Hancock. In the hunt for mouth caps, aprons, screens and gloves he could offer a solution. Well, Newmark wrote, it was urgent. Hancock didn’t show himself to be the hardest. He gave the green light to his political friend, without testing the proposal against the procurement rules.
This shadowy and opaque way of acting in the highest circles of government was no exception. According to a report by Transparency International UK, nearly 99% of the deals for protection materials were made without looking at competing proposals. No less than EUR 2.1 billion went into the pockets of people with contacts within the Conservative Party.
Hancock, who quit last month because he made out with a consultant during the lockdown, helped his neighbour get a lucrative business. The pub owner of his local pub received 40 million euros in tax money to manufacture test tubes. Interior Minister Priti Patel lobbied on behalf of a pharmaceutical company where a close friend of hers worked.
Prime minister Boris Johnson also participated in these dubious practices. The request of James Dyson, founder and director of the vacuum cleaner brand of the same name, to change tax rules for him, fell into fertile ground. Johnson promised to arrange this for the man who had signed up to manufacture ventilation equipment. Nepotism proved to be a fixed pattern within the Cabinet.
The policy of prioritising so-called IPs led to a huge waste of money. Steve Dechan, a former City Council member, raised 140 million euros for having plastic shields manufactured in China. The fact that the party turned out to be virtually unusable made the case even less fresh.
And the smell of corruption goes much further in the UK. According to an inquiry by a parliamentary committee in the House of Commons, 2.1 billion was probably spent on defective equipment, while the price of the majority of usable orders was well above the regular amount.
Thanks to the work of collective Good Law Project, it became clear in April how much the government deliberately circumvented ethical rules. There was a special WhatsApp group for Cabinet members to which the directors of 200 selected companies could report. This exclusive access to top politicians has a hint of corruption.
According to Transparency UK, approximately one fifth of all contracts for protective care materials worth € 4.3 billion cannot bear the light of day. The government always defends itself in the same way. From Johnson to Hancock (by former top advisor Dominic Cummings described as ‘totally incapable’): they always point to the crisis. Scarcity necessitated unorthodox action. In the run-up to a large-scale parliamentary survey in early 2022, Johnson stressed that he wanted to use the final report as a ‘lesson for the future’. He wants to avoid a punishment exercise at all costs.
Johnson’s excuse about unprecedented circumstances, in which tardiness would cost lives, is losing strength. An army of opportunists, thanks to their contacts within the government, may have caused deaths. The containers with unusable items made it necessary for healthcare personnel to use self-crafted mouth caps. No carefully crafted response from Johnson can erase this blemish.