Scotland: Forbes grilled over SNP's 'cautious' lockdown approach
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The Herald on Sunday newspaper in Scotland has conducted an analysis which it said shows more than 160 were awarded by the NHS, Scottish Government, local authorities, and others directly to suppliers without any competitive process. A handful of firms that were given work directly include those with connections to Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, as well as businesses with no clear track record of delivering the services they were paid for. The newspaper found at least 169 Covid-related contracts have been awarded over the past 18 months – without even being offered to other companies.
The total amounted to more than £539million and cover call centres, PPE (personal protective equipment), housing and care home places, IT support, hand sanitiser and consultancy work.
Firms awarded contracts include Pursuit Digital, which describes itself as a “solutions-driven full-service agency offering contact centre and omni channel technology solutions to clients worldwide”.
The company’s co-founder is pro-independence supporter Patrick Byrne, and prior to the pandemic the firm worked with the SNP carrying out telephony support during the independence referendum in 2016.
The analysis from The Herald on Sunday found Pursuit Digital was awarded a contract worth £10.2million to manage NHS Test and Protect by NHS National Services Scotland – without it even being put out for tender.
Just weeks ago, sister company Pursuit Marketing sealed a contract worth £1million to provide call centre support for social care PPE supplies, but this was initially put out for tender.
A spokesman for the form insisted its owners’ political standpoint had “no bearing on our operations”.
They told the newspaper: “This follows a short-term contract awarded at the height of the pandemic where we were able to digitally transform the distribution and auditing of PPE supplies to social care providers across Scotland, helping ensure it got to those who needed it.
“Based on the success of this project, and for a short period between September 2020 and March 2021, Pursuit also provided call centre capacity to NHS Test & Protect and this work is now being carried out by other contractors.”
Elsewhere, Edinburgh City Council awarded £635,725 to companies for PPE supplies at the beginning of the Covid crisis.
Nine other firms were handed a share of the funds PPE, including corporate branding and merchandising companies – again without these lucrative deals being scrutinised or put out to tender.
The Scottish capital’s council said drinks company Gleann Mor Spirits, which specialises in creating small batches of gin, whisky and other spirits, was asked to supply “alcohol-based hand gel” which was in “very short supply” when the pandemic began.
They said: “Although we had outstanding orders for 15,000 bottles of hand gel from a contracted supplier, delivery was held up at the country of origin’s borders.
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“That’s why we worked with Gleann Mor, a local company, to raise purchase orders for £38,600 worth of alcohol-based hand gel for use by frontline Council workers, including those delivering services to some of the most vulnerable people in the city.”
A spokesman added the contract was given in line with “Contract Standing Orders which were temporarily altered by our Leadership Advisory Panel on 31 March 2020 for reasons of extreme urgency, given the global pandemic.
“The product supplied by Gleann Mor was made to World Health Organisation standards.
“Once supplies became available again we reverted to our contracted suppliers.
“Our priority throughout was to ensure the safety of our staff and service users.”
The analysis from The Herald on Sunday also found the Student Loans Company (SLC) also paid out £765,000 in public funds after its telephone and IT systems were unable to manage the pandemic.
Once more, three Covid-related contracts – one to Virgin for telephone systems and two to Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) for cyber defence and IT services – were awarded to the company without being offered to anyone else.
Contract notices state the company’s “working at home solution proved not to be able to support the volume of calls” being received.
They added although the SLC had planned to upgrade its own systems before the end of 2020, a “new solution” was needed earlier because the current system “was not allowing staff to answer calls.”
The SLC said: “At the start of the pandemic, Government asked SLC to maintain our essential services in delivering finance to students and universities.
“As a largely office-based organisation, this required SLC to equip colleagues to deliver our services remotely.
“The contracts with PWC and Virgin Media were awarded compliantly in accordance with the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 to enable the on-going delivery of our essential services during the pandemic”.
Critics have warned awarding contracts without them being put out for tender first may have resulted in costs being much higher than if the work had been offered out for competition.
Jolyon Maugham, of the Good Law Centre, said: Mr Maugham said: “You look at some of these contracts and you think really? They were really the best supplier available?
“The public understands very well there was a pandemic and stuff needed to be bought in a hurry.
“But the price of retaining public trust is transparency – and I think in Holyrood, as in Westminster, Government has been too slow to offer proper explanations for some of these questionable spending decisions.”
Commenting directly on the Pursuit Marketing contract, a spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Pursuit Marketing was awarded a contract to support the Social Care PPE support centre after a competitive procurement process via the Additional Call Centre Service Capacity Framework Agreement.
“This framework enables a range of qualified and approved suppliers to provide additional support for specific NHS-led activities as part of our continuing national pandemic response.”
Regarding the other contracts, the spokesman added: “A number of direct awards were made for reasons of extreme urgency as part of our developing national response to an unprecedented global pandemic.
“This enabled NHS Scotland to meet the additional demands of the Scottish Health and Social Care sector during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
“All award procedures were in alignment with the Public Contracts (Scotland) Regulations 2015.”
The UK Government is facing an ongoing lawsuit in the High Court, demanding Downing Street publish all details of contracts handed out directly to firms without them being put out for tender first.
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