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John Tizard: Covid-19 – public procurement has a critical role

Monday April 6th, 2020

The public sector requires specialist clinical technology including ventilators, high-standard personal protective

John Tizard

John Tizard

equipment (PPE), sanitisers and much more. This requirement is urgent. The lack of basic equipment and materials is putting lives at risk – the lives of NHS, social care and other frontline workers as well as those of patients and the public. Accordingly, it is inevitable that there is much media interest in the supply of these essential items; and much criticism of the apparent failure to ensure their availability.

As a direct consequence, public sector procurement officials are under scrutiny, even though the core cause of the public concern and that of frontline staff actually lies primarily not with procurement teams but with politicians and senior officials for their strategic decisions and, in some cases, seemingly inexplicable delays in making decisions.

From the outside, it seems that procurement officials across the NHS and local government have been very focused on identifying sources of supply and then procuring from them – and they would ‘seem’ to be being creative and instrumental in identifying new sources of supply. When government seeks clinical equipment to be manufactured by companies that have not previously produced such machinery, procurement expertise is required to agree commercial terms which incentivise innovation and high-scale production, while protecting the public interest, even though the primary objective has to be the urgent supply of the necessary products.

Clearly, in these cases, there just isn’t the time (nor the energy) for over-complicated procurement arrangements – and in truth, I am surprised that government has not taken powers to ‘direct’ companies and requisition production of certain products. This may yet come, as it might in wartime. And there should certainly be no problem in terms of EU procurement or state aid rules given that this situation exists across the EU and because the Commission has recognised the issues by relaxing the rules and the need for securing these essential items.
It is also perplexing that the UK did not join in the EU procurement of certain medical equipment even when invited to do so. There is certainly a strong case for some EU-level procurement and other actions to secure what is needed, as there is for national action, but there is also a case for avoiding over-centralising this activity. National procurement and national stockpiling of some items has led to shortfalls in particular locations and major logistical challenges.

Rightly, the current focus of public attention and thanks is on NHS staff, social care staff and other frontline providers, but there are many others playing an incredibly important role across the public and other sectors – and this includes commercial and procurement professionals along with their colleagues involved in logistics and distribution. Let’s acknowledge their contribution.

When the current Covid-19 pandemic is over, there will be many lessons to be learned and questions to be asked and answered about political leadership, national strategy, the preparedness and responsiveness of public health, clinical and care providers, and the availability of essential equipment – including its procurement. And there will be more questions around the political and procurement/supply management interface and command structure. It is important that lessons are learned, not just for any future public health crisis but also for more mundane everyday public service delivery – including procurement.

This analysis should include comparing the agility and response of those public bodies with in-house provision compared to those with key services being fragmented and less flexible due to outsourcing arrangements. Anecdotally, one hears that local authorities and health trusts with in-house services have been able to respond to new challenges faster and more easily – for example moving staff onto priority duties and closing non-essential services without having to negotiate contract variations. There may be examples of where this has not been the case, but it would be good to consider such matters in any future review. Meanwhile, the immediate focus must, of course, be on operational delivery and strategic supply.

The coming months are going to be very challenging and demanding for everyone, including those involved in public procurement, sourcing, supply and logistics. We can only wish them well and implore them to keep staff safe – for their sake and all of ours.

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