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‘Fraud ready’ criminals may have stolen £37 bln in Covid money from UK Govt ~ Oxford university

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Fraudsters might have stolen as much as £37 billion of Covid money from the public purse, experts say.

The staggering sum, based on an analysis by academics from the University of Oxford, is vastly higher than previous estimates, and more than double the £16billion presented as a possibility to the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year.

In a damning review of the latest evidence from several public bodies, the report says criminal organisations – who were ‘fraud ready’ before the pandemic – took advantage of the ‘reckless’ lack of anti-fraud measures to siphon huge amounts from Government initiatives such as the Bounce Back Loan Scheme and Eat Out To Help Out.

Around 374 such schemes were introduced by various Government departments between 2020 and 2021 to support individuals and businesses hit hard by Covid measures, as well as to further research and support vaccine development.

The National Audit Office’s Covid cost tracker estimates that they have cost £370billion to implement.

But the Oxford team’s review, which was given to The Mail on Sunday ahead of being published Saturday, concludes ‘at least ten per cent’ of the cash – equivalent to £37billion, or one third of the total NHS annual budget – is likely to have been lost to fraud.

“When the decision to put into place severe and unprecedented restrictions was taken, governmental support for those worst affected was a sensible and humane act, regardless of the sums involved,” the review read.

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“However, because of the size of the programmes and the speed with which they were put in place, anti-fraud checks should have been part of the programmes. However, in several instances, they were not.

“If we add the lack of pandemic preparation, the government’s appetite for hasty risk-taking fed by flawed predictions of modellers and general media frenzy, together with the fragmentation of anti-fraud activities, all these factors created a greenhouse effect for criminals to fleece the public purse.”

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, last night condemned the scale of the fraud highlighted by the review.

“Abuse of the Covid schemes will appal hard-working taxpayers, who will ultimately have to foot the bill,” he said.

“Support had to be deployed quickly without reams of red tape tying things up, but the scale of the abuse will shock those who played by the rules while worrying about their jobs and families.

“Ministers should protect taxpayers with more stringent measures to fine and prosecute the fraudsters that fiddled the system.”

The detailed analysis, which focused on the largest of the government schemes, was carried out by Dr Tom Jefferson and Professor Carl Heneghan, from the CEBM.

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