Boris Johnson’s anti-corruption tsar, John Penrose, has been criticised for using a keynote speech at an international conference to defend the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Conservative MP, who is the husband of Dido Harding, the NHS Test and Trace boss, made the comments amid mounting accusations of cronyism in the Conservative Party and in the wake of last month’s court ruling that the government acted unlawfully over transparency.
Speaking at the OECD Global Anti-Corruption and Integrity Forum on Tuesday 22 March, Penrose defended the government’s efforts – and appeared to blame transparency measures for slowing down the pandemic response.
“Our government procurement and buying, while it had all sorts of transparency measures, is too slow when you are trying to work in COVID time,” he said.
“When the chips are down, when there’s a pandemic on, you absolutely have to move at enormous speed. And any shortcomings, any weaknesses in your procurement processes, will be cruelly exposed if you’re not very careful.”
Highlighting the need for fast action, Penrose added: “We need to come up with a process which is much faster, which is more transparent by design, which is more digital, and which therefore has inbuilt controls and much greater scrutiny to provide that speed while at the same time delivering the anti-corruption measures that we all regard as important.”
Critics say his comments are divorced from reality, with the procurement system still open to what “some see as being a ‘chumocracy’”.
The SNP’s shadow health secretary, Philippa Whitford, told openDemocracy that Penrose “seems to be trying to get the government’s excuses in, in advance of any future inquiry as to why so many Tory contacts and donors with no experience of PPE were given lucrative contracts for millions of pounds.”
She added: “Rather than saying that in times of crisis anything goes, it should be that systems are slick enough to mountain standards – otherwise every crisis can be used as an excuse for loss of transparency or corruption.
“It’s important that the UK sets a good example to other countries, rather than appearing a hypocrite.”