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PSF welcomes this guest article from Romy Hughes, director at Brightman.

In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic there was a sense of determination and “Blitz spirit” as the UK pulled together to beat the virus. We were painting rainbows on our windows, applauding our heroes and checking on our neighbours in a way many of us had never done before. The government too showed uncharacteristically creative thinking by turning to British industry to meet the demand for ventilators, while some of those who supplied technology to the NHS were praising it for the new speed at which it was deploying new technology solutions. Yet at the same time, we all saw the media reports of PPE shortages and many SMEs’ offers to supply equipment being left unanswered.

Clearly the NHS faced a situation for which there is no parallel. In a situation as fast-moving as a pandemic you will undoubtedly find examples of both quick-thinking policymaking and rigid, Draconian bureaucracy. But which was more dominant, and could a middle ground to be struck? Could lessons be learned to bring more agility to NHS procurement in the future?

Compounding age-old problems

Many of the issues which hampered the NHS’s ability to procure what it needed during the pandemic existed long before COVID-19. The following issues need to be addressed as a priority:

  1. Underutilisation of the Digital Marketplace (due to a lack of training and incentives to use them)
  2. Too many smaller suppliers chasing too few contracts (leaving many contracts to still be won by larger suppliers)
  3. Slow and/or cumbersome means to match supply with demand (e.g. manufacturers being unable to contact the right people to procure their products and/or a lack of specifications from government on exactly what was needed)
  4. Inability or unwillingness to react to the situation quickly enough (was procurement as-a-whole unwilling to change its approach or relax its rules?)

What can be done to address these problems?

  1. Educate the NHS on the procurement frameworks available – the framework agreements already provide faster routes for procurement, but they need to be used
  2. More standardisation of frameworks and working processes – this will make it easier to scale down/up more quickly and make it easier for suppliers
  3. Move NHS away from primarily using/building its own e.g. NHS Trusts routinely build their own datacentres. While some cloud contracts have been awarded to Google and Amazon most recently, the Cabinet Office’s own cloud provider, Crown Hosting, could be better utilised
  4. Drive efficiency from the top by appointing a “Minister of Government Efficiency” – someone who can review all public sector procurement practices and drive reform across the whole sector and in every department. This should be a cabinet role to ensure real change
  5. More agile procurement, especially in times of crisis – the NHS demonstrated its ability to be flexible with tech startups during the crisis. It needs to replicate this in other areas, especially since stockpiling often isn’t feasible due to storage costs and the short lifespan of many items

While hindsight is always 20:20, let’s not waste it. There will be a willingness to learn lessons once this crisis is over. This will be a great opportunity to address many of the procurement problems that have needlessly held back our public services for too long.

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