The National Audit Office (NAO) recently published its findings from an investigation into government procurement for the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The scathing NAO report highlighted a lack of transparency and adequate documentation around some key decisions, such as why particular suppliers had been chosen or how the UK Government had identified and managed potential conflicts of interest.
It focused in on the potentially questionable awarding of some contracts while procuring large volumes of goods and services at high speed to respond to Covid-19. Some of these contracts were also found to have been awarded after work had already begun, with many published outside of the appropriate timeframes.
PPE contracts have proven something of a controversial subject during the pandemic, with a number of stories coming to light of conflicts of interest and controversial awards of sizeably-valued contracts.
By July 31 2020, the NAO report shows that 8,600 contracts had been awarded, worth £18bn, in relation to the UK pandemic response.
Of these contracts, 90% of the contracts by value (£16bn) were awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and its national bodies – compared to in 2019-20 when the DHSC awarded contracts up to a value of just £1.1bn, less than 7% of what was being awarded in the first half of the year.
Of the contracts awarded, new contracts worth £17.3bn were awarded to suppliers, of which £10.5bn were awarded directly without a competitive tender process.
A further £6.7bn were awarded directly through pre-existing framework agreements, which would have involved a competitive bidding process when set up, while just £0.2bn worth of new contracts in this period were awarded using a competitive tender process or using a competitive bidding process from a framework agreement.
Of those contracts, 80% of the contracts awarded – more than 6,900 contracts – related to PPE, which was in huge demand particularly in the first few months of the pandemic, with global demand far exceeding supply and limited pre-existing supply chains.
Gareth Davies, Head of the NAO, said: “At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, government had to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly whilst managing the increased risks this might entail.
“While we recognise 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. The evidence set out in our report shows that these standards of transparency and documentation were not consistently met in the first phase of the pandemic.”
With significant questions having been raised as a result of the report’s findings, it now becomes a question of what lessons can be learnt from the investigation to ensure similar challenges are never again repeated.
Mike Adams, England Director at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This report contains tough lessons very relevant to the here and now.
“Earlier this year nursing staff were put in the terrifying position of having to work in potentially life-threatening environments with inadequate protection.
“We heard stories of masks, when available, being flimsy, poorly fitting or years out of date and of staff having to share disposable visors.
“The RCN fought hard to force the government to address this situation and lessons must be learnt so that nursing staff never face horrendous circumstances like that again.”
The NAO recommends as part of the report that, should the need to procure significant volumes of goods with extreme urgency arise once more, the Government should identify and manage potential conflicts of interest and bias earlier in the procurement process.
The Government should also, it says, ensure that basic information on contracts are published within 90 days of the award of a contract.