Failure to publish coronavirus contracts ‘entirely proportionate and reasonable’, says Health Minister

An unlawful failure to publish details of billions of pounds’ worth of coronavirus-related contracts was “an entirely proportionate and reasonable consequence of a very difficult situation”, a Health Minister has said.

Tory frontbencher Lord Bethell (pictured) criticised those “seeking to make political capital out of an administrative oversight”, arguing the overriding priority had been to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline staff and save lives.

The Conservative peer also defended the Government against accusations of “cronyism” in the awarding of contracts during the pandemic, warning that they damaged both morale and the integrity of the system.

Last November saw the National Audit Office (NAO), the public spending watchdog, publish a scathing report which criticised the way normal standards of transparency had been set aside.

The NAO said firms recommended by MPs, peers and ministers’ offices were given priority as the Government sought PPE for the NHS in the first phase of the pandemic.

Responding to critics at Westminster, Lord Bethell said: “When they attack the Government and make accusations of cronyism, of chumocracy, of corruption and they have no foundation for those attacks, those attacks are interpreted as attacks on the very NHS and social care staff, who have worked extremely hard to procure the right services, to procure the right products and have the interests of patients in mind and are working so hard to save lives.

“Attacks on the integrity of the system are extremely damaging to the morale and to the integrity of that system itself.”

He was also unapologetic following the recent High Court ruling which found the Government had acted unlawfully in not publishing redacted contracts in accordance with the transparency policy.

Lord Bethell told peers: “Every moment of every waking day of everyone involved in the procurement of PPE was dedicated to getting the right kit to people on the frontline to save their lives.

“And if the paperwork was done two weeks late, then that is an entirely proportionate and reasonable consequence of a very difficult situation indeed and seeking to make political capital out of an administrative oversight like that does not seem at all proportionate to the situation.”

The minister made his comments as he outlined plans in the House of Lords for wholesale changes to the way the health and care systems work in England, aimed at providing closer working.

Speaking during the debate on the White Paper, Tory peer Lord Naseby took the opportunity to express his “sincere thanks from the bottom of my heart” to NHS staff at Bedford hospital for saving his wife’s life.

The former MP give no further details.

Lord Bethell joined him in paying tribute to the health service workers.

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