The government has so far recouped only £18m from potentially fraudulent personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts.
Health minister Will Quince, responding to a written parliamentary question from Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper, confirmed that as of 12 December the Department of Health had recovered £18m from PPE contracts deemed “high risk”.
The figures, first reported by The Guardian, revealed the government’s “pitiful” efforts to reclaim wasted money, the Liberal Democrats said. The newspaper said it is estimated up to £630m spent on PPE could have involved fraud or error.
Mr Quince told the party’s health spokesperson the money was clawed back “through additional examination and checks on contracts identified as heightened risk and contract management to prevent loss”.
But Ms Cooper said: “These figures serve as a damning indictment of the Conservative government’s record on dodgy Covid contracts.
“It was bad enough that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was frittered away on unusable PPE. These pitiful attempts to recoup the money lost is adding insult to injury.
“Conservative ministers must step up efforts to recover the money wasted on Covid contracts handed out to their wealthy friends and donors during the pandemic.”
The Liberal Democrats are planning to table an amendment to the procurement bill, due in the House of Commons early next year, that would ban so-called “VIP lanes” for awarding contracts to firms.
Billions of pounds were spent on PPE when the pandemic hit the UK, while ministers have spoken openly about the challenge of finding equipment as countries around the world competed for limited resources.
In July, the Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised the Department of Health for taking little action against potentially fraudulent suppliers, despite an estimated 5% of PPE expenditure involving fraud.
The Department for Health spokesperson said: “We continue to sell, donate, repurpose and recycle excess PPE in the most cost-effective way, as well as seeking to recover costs from suppliers wherever possible to ensure taxpayer value for money.
“We are also exploring innovative solutions to reprocess excess PPE into materials or new products that have further uses.”