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John Tizard: Procurement cannot escape a Public Enquiry on COVID-19

Wednesday May 6th, 2020

Inevitably, there will be a public enquiry (ideally a judicial enquiry) on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the British people and economy. The enquiry should be, be comprehensive, wide ranging and consider matters including:

John Tizard

John Tizard

• the preparedness of the UK governments, local government, the NHS and other public bodies

• the impact of a decade of austerity on capacity in the NHS, public health and social care

• how government responded from the moment the virus was identified in China, and at every stage of its subsequent spread

• political leadership and the role of politicians

• the role of scientific advisory bodies

• why the virus has affected some communities and age groups more than others, including the adverse impact on the poorest and BAME communities

• how the Government responded to the economic consequences of the pandemic and the long-term implications of its interventions

• how governments moved to ease the lockdown

• international comparisons on every aspect of the virus within and across the four countries of the UK, and comparisons between them

• the role and performance of public procurement

I believe that the Government should announce the terms of reference for such an enquiry sooner rather than later. There is even a potential case for the enquiry to commence some of its work now, so that interim findings might influence and shape future policy and practice.

Specifically, public procurement policy and practice must, of course, be a key focus for the enquiry. Last month, I wrote for Government Opportunities on the important role that public procurement must and is playing in the national response to the pandemic –

There have been some impressive examples of public procurement officials in central government, local government and the NHS stepping up to ensure that: frontline staff had the necessary personal protection equipment (PPE); hospitals had drugs and specialist clinical equipment; and public services had food and other supplies. However, there have also been some serious shortcomings.
Some of these failures have arisen from: a general lack of preparedness for a major pandemic; the failure to act on the outcomes of the Cygnet Exercise; international market pressures, with demand vastly outstripping supply for many essential products; and the logistical challenges of product distribution. Any enquiry will clearly need to consider these factors – and this is a prime example of where interim findings could be greatly beneficial.

That said, there are many more questions concerning public procurement and related matters, which probably ought also to be addressed, including:

• how effective have public procurement services been in meeting the demands of the NHS and wider public sector?

• has the balance between central and localised procurement been right; and if so, for what products and services; and if not, why?

• should there have been central stockpiling of certain equipment, and if so, why was there no such capacity? And how could it best organised and accessed?

• could and should the UK have participated in the EU procurement schemes?

• could and should the Government have taken powers to direct businesses to produce necessary equipment and supplies rather than to procure them?

• to what extent could procurement and the supply of essential equipment and supplies have better served the fragmented care sector?

• have public bodies with ‘in-house’ provision been able to respond to the crisis better than those with outsourced services (anecdotally, this has been the case in local authorities)?

• has the public procurement service across the sectors had sufficient capacity and capability to respond; did it respond effectively (and if not, why not); and has it had the necessary level of international market intelligence and reach?

• to what extent, if any, have the current public procurement regulations hindered or assisted the response?

• has political pressure unduly jeopardised or possibly enabled better procurement?

• should the public sector have used or developed its own capacity for undertaking activities (such as testing), rather than outsourcing some services?

• why has government turned to outsourced provision for call centre and other services rather than using existing public sector capacity and expertise?

• in what way, if any, has the fragmentation and marketisation of social care including low price contracting exacerbated the problems experienced in health care?

No doubt there are other critical questions, and any enquiry will need, eventually, to address all of them. Meantime, some are likely to require urgent answers as the issues continue to play out – and any findings that can improve short-term outcomes would clearly be welcome.

Therefore, rather than wait for a formal public enquiry, I suggest that there is a strong case for the Cabinet Office and the public procurement profession to begin asking key questions now and to develop preliminary answers, so as to further contribute to tackling the virus and supporting frontline staff in the NHS and social care.

As I wrote last month, 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.

If we learn lessons, and learn them early, we can do this more effectively and safely.

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