Boris Johnson has said he is “very proud” of the Government’s efforts to buy up urgently needed kit during the coronavirus outbreak after the public spending watchdog criticised the way normal standards of transparency were set aside.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said firms recommended by MPs, peers and ministers’ offices were given priority as the Government scrambled to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) for the National Health Service in the first phase of the pandemic.
Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the failings uncovered in the NAO report may be the “tip of the iceberg” and called for ministers to “come clean” and publish all information about the contracts awarded.
In the Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that eight months into the crisis the Government was “still making the same mistakes”.
However Mr Johnson strongly defended the Government’s actions at a time when there was a global shortage of proper equipment.
“We were facing a very difficult situation where across the world there (were) not adequate supplies of PPE. Nobody had enough PPE,” he told MPs.
“We shifted heaven and earth to get 32 billion items of PPE into this country. I’m very proud of what has been achieved.”
The NAO’s investigation comes with the Government under intense pressure about claims of a “cronyvirus” culture which has seen allegations about key posts and contracts going to people linked to the Tory party.
The report found:
– By July 31 more than 8,600 contracts with a value of £18 billion had been awarded, including £10.5 billion without any competition process.
– A “high-priority lane” was established for firms referred to the PPE team by officials, ministers’ offices, MPs, peers and senior NHS staff, with about one in ten companies going through this route getting a contract, compared with one in 100 for those in the “ordinary lane”.
– Contracts were awarded retrospectively after work was carried out, including a £3.2 million agreement with Deloitte to support the PPE team and an £840,000 deal with Public First for focus groups.
– There was “inadequate documentation” in a number of cases on how risks, including potential conflicts of interest, had been managed.
– Many of the contracts awarded were not published in a timely manner.
NAO chief Gareth Davies acknowledged that the need to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly had led to increased risks.
“While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, it remains essential that decisions are properly documented and made transparent if the Government is to maintain public trust that taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately and fairly,” he said.
“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.”
The investigation looked in detail at 20 contracts including one with Public First, the owners of which had “previously advised or worked with” Cabinet minister Michael Gove.
The NAO acknowledged that in the examples it examined any potential conflicts of interest involving ministers had been properly declared.
It said it had found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.
It did however criticise a lack of record-keeping within the “high-priority lane”, which involved 493 suppliers, of which 47 were given contracts.
Fewer than 250 sources for the 493 leads were recorded, including 144 which came through the private offices of ministers, 64 directly from backbench MPs or peers and 21 from officials.