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Concern over ‘opaque’ Covid-related contracts awarded around world | World news

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The UK has spent more than £2.5bn on services and equipment related to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to fresh analysis that raises concerns about “opaque” contracts around the world wasting money and putting lives at risk.

A report by the Open Contracting Partnership and Spend Network found governments had spent $130bn (£97bn) on pandemic-related contracts, including on PPE (personal protective equipment) and other medical supplies, out of an annual procurement spend of nearly $13tn.

But the two organisations, which have built a searchable database of international procurement contracts, warned that a lack of transparency and high-quality data about money spent with private firms meant huge sums could be wasted.

“Companies with no relevant experience were awarded huge contracts for medical equipment, without transparency or competition,” they said.

“Supplies failed to arrive or did not meet the required standards, leaving medical staff without critical resources and costing lives.”


They pointed to examples such as the UK hedge fund that supplied 50m masks deemed unsafe for NHS workers, a Bosnian raspberry farm that secured a contract for ventilators, and a vodka distributor facing a pending lawsuit for overstating projected sales that won a US federal contract for surgical masks.

Analysis carried out by the organisations for the Guardian showed the UK had spent £2.5bn on procurement contracts related to Covid-19. Some of these have proved controversial, with at least £1bn of Covid-19 contracts awarded without a competitive process.

They include an £840,000 contract to research public opinion about government policies to a company owned by two long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.

The political communications company behind the Conservative party’s controversial 2019 digital campaign strategy also received a £3m government contract to work on Covid-19 messaging, without a competitive process.

Another company, Randox, which employs the prominent Conservative politician Owen Paterson as a paid consultant, was awarded a £133m contract in March to produce testing kits for England, Wales and Northern Ireland without any other firms being given the opportunity to bid for the work.

The UK government later instructed care homes and members of the public to immediately stop using the kits after safety problems were discovered.

The government has also paid Love Island stars and social media influencers to promote the government’s troubled test-and-trace system.

The OCP and Spend Network report found that while the standard of UK data was higher than in many other countries, many contracts were published with no value, or with end dates before the supposed start of the contract.

The OCP said nearly $13tn a year was being handed to private companies by governments around the world, often with little transparency or faulty data records documenting them.

More than $10tn of the total is spent by 16 countries, led by China on approximately $4.2tn, the US on $1.8tn and the UK just behind France on $359bn, or nearly 14% of gross domestic product.

Gavin Hayman, the executive director of OCP, said: “Covid-19 has put public procurement in the spotlight like never before.

“Governments spent eye-watering sums of money without proper checks and balances, leading to unnecessary waste and unforgivable loss of life.

“PPE and medical supplies are just the tip of the iceberg. With governments relying on public procurement systems to boost their economic recovery efforts, we need transparency to ensure public money is well spent, whether on school meals, medicine, or vital infrastructure.”

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Globally, fewer than 2% of procurement, or $244bn, is published using the open contracting data standard (OCDS), which allows businesses, journalists and civil society to analyse and question the data.

Ian Makgill, the founder of Spend Network, said: “Publishing full details of public contracts makes the enormous public procurement market more efficient and competitive.

“Governments can gain real benefits by opening up the whole procurement process, from the planning and bidding stage, through to the decision on preferred supplier, and the fulfilment of the contract.”

A government spokesperson said: “As part of an unprecedented response to this global pandemic we have drawn on the expertise of a number of private sector partners. This is completely in line with procurement regulations for exceptional circumstances, where being able to procure at speed has been critical in the national response to Covid-19.

“We have been clear from the outset that public authorities must achieve value for taxpayers’ money and use good commercial judgement when awarding contracts. The publication of contract information is being carried out as quickly as possible in line with transparency guidelines.”

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Egypt’s parliamentary vote likely to tighten leader’s grip | World News

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CAIRO – Egyptians began voting Saturday in the first stage of parliamentary elections, a vote that is highly likely to produce a toothless lower chamber packed with supporters of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

The elections are taking place as the Arab world’s most populous country faces a slight increase in coronavirus cases, with authorities warning that a second wave of the pandemic lies ahead.

Like the Senate elections in August, Egyptian election authorities said face masks would be handed out to voters for free and polling stations were disinfected.

Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly urged Egyptians to take part in the vote that he described as having a “democratic atmosphere,” as he cast his own ballot early in the morning in a Giza suburb.

Since coming to power in 2014, el-Sissi has presided over a rolling crackdown on dissent that has discouraged public criticism of the government. Security forces detained thousands following small, sporadic street protests against corruption last year.

Most Egyptian media are supportive of el-Sissi and regularly berate critics as traitors or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist group that is officially designated as a terrorist organization.

“The previous parliament allowed the government to do what it wanted,” said voter Amr Abdel-Wahed while waiting to cast his ballot at a polling centre neat the Cairo University. He added that people were “tired” of a parliament that followed the government’s line so closely.

Egyptian officials push for people to turn out in high numbers for elections. Election authorities have reiterated previous warnings that those who boycott the vote could be fined up to 500 Egyptian pounds ($32). Some 63 million voters are eligible to vote in the two-stage election, with results announced in early December.

Only 14.23% of voters participated in the Senate elections in August. The government restored the upper chamber to the country’s constitution following a referendum last year that sought to extend the presidency’s powers and term limits.

A total of 568 seats in the lower chamber are up for grabs in this month’s polls, with over 4,000 candidates running as individuals competing for 50% of the seats. Prominent, wealthy government-affiliated power brokers have an advantage.

The other 50% of seats in the House of Representatives are reserved for over 1,100 candidates running on four party lists. El-Sissi will name 28 seats, or 5%, bringing the total number of seats in the lower chamber to 596.

The first stage of voting was taking place Saturday and Sunday in 14 of Egypt’s 27 provinces, including Giza and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. Egyptian expatriates abroad voted earlier this week.

Voting in the country’s 13 other provinces, including the capital Cairo and the two provinces in Sinai Peninsula, will take place on Nov. 7-8. Each stage of the vote will be followed by runoff elections.

Final results will be announced in December and the new chamber will hold its inaugural session shortly afterward.

In the run up to the election, Cairo and towns across the country have been awash with banners advertising candidates, mostly pro-government businessmen and politicians. In Giza, for example, the main front-runners are staunchly pro-government candidates including businessman Mohammed Abu el-Enein.

In Alexandria, lawmaker Haitham el-Hariri, who was one of the few opposition figures in the outgoing parliament, urged his supporters to vote. He said that he faces “a fierce battle” against what he called “candidates of political money,” in an apparent reference to businessmen loyal to the government who are running against him.

In recent years, authorities have ratcheted up their crackdown on dissent, targeting not only Islamist political opponents but also secular pro-democracy activists, journalists and online critics. The tactic has left the president and his supporters with no formal political opposition.

Last year, police arrested eight people, including former lawmaker and Social Democratic party member Zyad el-Elaimy, after they met with political parties and opposition lawmakers to hash out how to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections. The arrested were accused of spreading fake news and conspiring with an outlawed group to commit crimes, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.

El-Sissi’s government has also pushed through sweeping reforms and austerity measures to overhaul the country’s battered economy. The reforms, which included floating the currency and slashing key subsidies, won the Egyptian government praise from its key allies abroad and international financial institutions. But the economic overhaul dramatically hiked prices for everything from electricity to drinking water, squeezing the poor and middle class.

Critics say the 596-seat legislature will be like the previous one, which was little more than a rubber stamp for el-Sissi’s policies, leaving the general-turned president with almost unchecked power.

The pro-government Mustaqbal Watan, or “Nation’s Future,” party has the largest number of individual candidates, with 284 individual candidates in the two stages.

The election’s outcome is highly unlikely to produce a parliament that can form its own legislative agenda or hold the government accountable, according to Ahmed Abd Rabou, a visiting assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

“The coming Egyptian House of Representatives will just continue to remain a puppet in the hand of the government,” he said.

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TV reporter goes missing in southern Pakistan | World News

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ISLAMABAD – A reporter working for Pakistan’s leading Geo News television has gone missing in the southern port city of Karachi, family and colleagues said Saturday.

Geo bureau chief in Karachi, Fahim Siddiqi, said police registered the journalist’s disappearance as an “abduction” case without naming suspects.

Ali Imran Syed, 40, left home late Friday evening telling his wife that he would be back in half an hour but did not return.

Azhar Abbas, head of the Geo TV, said he has contacted provincial and federal authorities “to help trace the missing reporter” and “ensure his safety”.

Siddiqi said the reporter’s abduction may have been related to his work on recent political events, including the arrest of an opposition leader who is the son-in-law of former premier Nawaz Sharif.

Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari said in a tweet no one should “disappear in a democracy”.

Pakistani media has been facing renewed pressure from state agencies that have sought to control the topics covered by the media and even restrict the selection of guests for TV talk shows.

Journalists and press freedom advocates often accuse the Pakistani military and security agencies of pressuring media outlets to prevent critical coverage.

In December last year, a Karachi based reporter with the Express Tribune newspaper, Bilal Farooqi, was arrested on charges of spreading hateful content against the country’s military on social media.

In July, Matiullah Jan was briefly detained. Jan is known for criticism of Pakistan’s military and security agencies.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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Thai King’s Praise for Defiant Loyalist Draws Controversy | World News

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By Orathai Sriring and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s praise for a man who held up a royal portrait at a protest site in Bangkok has drawn controversy in Thailand, winning acclaim from monarchists and scorn from protesters.

The king has not made any public comment on more than three months of protests, which have increasingly targeted the monarchy as well as the government.

But in video recorded on Friday evening as the king greeted well-wishers outside the Grand Palace, he is heard praising a monarchist who is introduced by Queen Suthida as the man who held up the royal portrait while others were protesting.

“Very brave, very brave, very good, thank you,” the king said.

The Royal Palace made no comment, as it has not since the start of anti-government protests in July that have increasingly targeted the monarchy as well. Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri declined to comment.

The video was posted on the royalist’s Facebook page along with several other videos of the event and pictures of him from Oct. 20 holding the portrait.

“Their majesties recognised me. This is the highest point of my life,” wrote the man, Thitiwat Tanagaroon.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the video. Several other people at the event recorded the encounter and posted videos online, but the king’s words were not clear amid the chanting.

The king’s comments drew a big response.

“Just seeing this picture, we are very touched,” royalist leader Warong Dechgitvigrom posted. “This is the Thai way and Thai society of caring, supporting and protecting. Today it’s considered that his institution has adapted to be very close to the people. That made the greatest impression.”

But also among the top trending hashtags on Twitter in Thailand, tweeted well over 500,000 times, was #23OctEyesOpened – used by protesters and their supporters saying the Palace had now made its position clear.

The hashtag #VeryBraveVeryGoodThankYou was also widely used – alongside sarcastic comments.

“Very brave, very brave, very good for such a clear expression,” read a comment from protest leader Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree. He has put less emphasis than others on calls for royal reform.

Another protest leader, Piyarat Chongthep, commented: “The king has not been above political problems but always sits at the heart of the problems.”

Protesters seek the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former junta leader they accuse of engineering an election last year to keep power. He denies the accusation.

The protests also seek changes to the constitution and to reduce the powers of the monarchy, which they say has helped enable decades of military domination.

Under Thailand’s constitution, the monarchy is “enthroned in a position of revered worship” but in principle it does not engage in politics – a point that the king himself underlined during elections last year.

James Buchanan, a lecturer at Bangkok’s Mahidol University International College, said the king’s comments marked his clearest intervention so far in Thailand’s crisis.

“I interpret it as signalling that the king acknowledges the challenge to his authority by the protests, but will not back down,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-Um; Writing by Matthew Tostevin)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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