€249 million for holiday corona tests: money well spent?

Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport Hugo de Jonge recently announced that corona testing is free for citizens going on holidays in July and August. The Volkskrant newspaper reports the estimated number of holiday tests to be done will be around 3.5 million. Under the motto “test before departure”, citizens who plan to travel within Europe this summer, but are not vaccinated yet, can go to a designated commercial test street, or the GGD, for a free test.

The EU Member States agreed that people who have been fully vaccinated can travel freely throughout the EU. However, they must wait two weeks after the second injection to travel and four weeks for one vaccination (such as Janssen). Additionally, no testing is required for “green and yellow zone” countries. If you have been infected with corona within the last six months, you can travel freely within the EU this summer. Those who do not match these criteria, which at this point in time is still about 60% of the Dutch population, need a negative test result in order to travel.

The free tests have caused some specialists to criticize the move. The Dutch media say the amount spent by the government in this operation will amount to a maximum of 249 million euros. However, the cabinet opposed the free holiday tests and warned about the price tag. Despite the recommendation, the Dutch House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) stood its ground. It argued that young people, who have not yet been fully vaccinated, should not be disadvantaged in their opportunities to travel.

Money well spent?
The Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (IenW) has hired external providers to offer the free service. They will receive a fixed fee for this: €64.25 per PCR test and €19.25 for an antigen test. However, FD newspaper interviewed experts who believe the government could have used a smarter approach by allowing test companies to compete for the service.

Procurement lawyers find this construction incomprehensible. Pieter Kuypers, a lawyer at AKD and a professor of procurement law in Nijmegen, says the company that can arrange its services most efficiently walks out with disproportionate profits. “The ministry could have prevented this by giving providers the challenge of gaining a price advantage,” says Kuypers.

Additionally, Elisabetta Manunza, professor of European and international procurement law in Utrecht, says the approach is cracking the system, since the compensation per test is already fixed. She states that “in a tender you can let parties compete on the quality and the price. This is not happening now”. She thinks the approach is a bad choice financially. Groningen professor of procurement law, Huib van Romburgh, also finds it more logical to allow interested test companies to compete on the price.

The criticisms are not new, as government spending during the corona crisis is currently under fire. For example, the Court of Audit ruled last month that the financial management by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) was “seriously deficient” last year. In a nutshell, the ministry purchased €591.6 million worth of face masks, tests and other goods. Until this day, it’s unclear whether everything was actually delivered. There was also public outcry about a face mask deal in which media personality Sywert van Lienden earned €9 million. The ministry admits that it “possibly acted unlawfully” by hiring the Open Netherlands Foundation (SON) without issuing a tender. SON is tasked to advise on the distribution of the test assignments among the interested providers. What that advice actually entails remains unclear.

According to the ministry spokesperson, SON was hired because of its “knowledge and expertise”. The foundation, led by former Armed Forces Commander Tom Middendorp, previously organized the hiring of test companies for field labs and large-scale events. The ministers justify hiring SON directly, without tender, by invoking “the very short time frame”. Yet, professors pointed out the government could have opted for an urgent request to enable a quick tender procedure.

Manunza finds it disturbing that ministers conclude a potentially illegal contract so easily. “They give the wrong impression that the rules are in the way or are very complicated. That is very worrying. The Netherlands likes to point the finger at other countries, but when things like this happen in their own country, no one speaks out.”

Written by Raphael Perachi Vieira