The investigation will provide ammunition to those who accuse ministers of mishandling public spending at a time when Britain is borrowing unprecedented amounts to help people through the worst health and economic crisis in living memory. The NAO put the value of contracts awarded as of July 31 at 18 billion pounds ($24 billion), with personal protective equipment such as face masks accounting for almost 70%.
“While we recognize that these were exceptional circumstances, it remains essential that decisions are properly documented and made transparent if government is to maintain public trust that taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately and fairly,” said Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO.
More than 10 billion pounds of work was awarded without any competition under emergency rules introduced in March, and in some cases departments failed to explain their decisions or say how they managed potential conflicts of interest.
Some contracts were granted retrospectively after work had already been carried out, while the government went ahead with an order for masks that failed to meet its own PPE specifications.
The spending watchdog also raised concerns about the use of a so-called high priority lanes, with potential suppliers selected on the basis of referrals by government ministers, lawmakers and health professionals.
About 10% were given contracts compared with less than 1% of suppliers that came through ordinary channels. In one case, a firm was added to the high-priority lane in error.
Lawmakers urged the government to “come clean” and publish all of the pandemic-related contracts it has handed out so far.
“Even in an emergency, public procurements need to get the basics right. Clearly, too many didn’t,” said Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which examines NAO reports. “The mistakes revealed by this report are likely to only be the tip of the iceberg.”
In a response to the NAO report, the government said it made “no apology” for acting urgently amid the biggest challenge in a generation. “We have robust processes in place for spending public money to ensure we get critical equipment to where it needs to go as quickly as possible, whilst also ensuring value for money for the taxpayer,” Cabinet Office Minister Julia Lopez said in a statement.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under fire for his handling of the pandemic, from the scarcity of protection for doctors and nurses in the initial weeks to the failures in testing and contact tracing. With over 50,000 deaths from Covid-19, the U.K. has one of the highest mortality rates in the world.
The government has faced multiple lawsuits, including attempts to force disclosure of details of contracts given to private companies. The vast majority of work was awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care, followed by the Department for Education.