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HUS may face legal action over €100 million lab contract

The contract was awarded to a private lab to increase testing capacity of passenger traffic at Finland's borders.

Makasiiniterminaali Eteläsatamassa.
Finland's coronavirus strategy has called for large-scale testing of passengers at its borders. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) is being criticised for awarding a giant 100 million euros contract to the private laboratory services company Synlab on Monday without calling for an open tender process

The 10-month-contract involves HUS renting premises and equipment for analysis of coronavirus samples from Synlab in Helsinki.

According to Jukka Hurme, CEO of Vita Laboratories, a competitor of Synlab, HUS initiated a direct procurement without properly examining the ability of other labs to provide the service.

The company is now considering various legal measures, one of which would be to take the matter to the Market Court, Hurme said.

However, HUS authorities have justified their actions by citing the urgency of the situation. On 10 September, Finland announced that passengers from many countries arriving in Finland should be tested for Covid-19 as soon as possible.

"We investigated the market and other players in the industry would not have been able to offer such comprehensive services in this schedule," Chairman of the HUS board, Ulla-Maija Urho said.

Finland has increased testing capacity at all key border crossing points. The Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District is directly responsible for implementing the large-scale testing — 200 million euros have been set aside for this undertaking.

Exception in urgent situations

According to Hurme, there may be several problems with this expensive deal — it could be a violation of procurement law, problematic for national preparedness and a waste of public funds.

"If the project was carried out by several companies, it would ensure better security of supply," Hurme said.

However, Vice-chair of the HUS board Jari Oksanen said that the government's policies called for direct procurement in this situation.

"Government guidelines for increasing testing capacity require direct procurement in order to get production up and running as quickly as possible,” Oksanen said.

An exception in the Act on Public Procurement and Concession Contracts permits direct procurement when the prescribed time limits cannot be complied with. This could refer to urgent situations caused by unforeseeable circumstances that are beyond the control of the contracting entity.

According to HUS chairman Urho, testing processes at airports also call for special requirements — the operations should not affect the flow of border traffic. This means the analytics unit must be strategically located with good transport connections from large sampling points, such as the airport, in order to minimise the time required to transport the samples.

In order to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of the process, it did not make sense to divide the procurement between several players, HUS authorities said.

"We have been careful in this matter, and we expected support from the government to ensure quick funding and procurement," Urho said.

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