Britain’s government has failed to account clearly for all of the $24 billion it has shelled out for supplies and services linked to the coronavirus pandemic, state auditors said in a report Wednesday.
The report by the National Audit Office (NAO) came as the Conservative government is under mounting attack from opposition parties for alleged cronyism in its award of lucrative Covid-19 contracts to well-connected business figures and donors.
NAO chief Gareth Davies recognised that when the pandemic took grip earlier this year, the government had to scramble to secure supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) in a strained global marketplace.
“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,” 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 government was able to invoke emergency powers to bypass normal tendering rules that regulate official contracts.
The NAO report found that up to July 31, more than 8,600 contracts worth £18 billion ($24 billion) in total had been given out, including £10.5 billion awarded without any competitive process.
The government set up a “high priority lane” to favour companies recommended by ministries, civil servants, members of parliament and senior staff from the National Health Service (NHS).
“We found inadequate documentation in a number of cases on how the risks of procuring suppliers without competition had been mitigated,” the report said.
Some contracts were awarded retrospectively, after work had already been carried out, and there was “not always a clear audit trail to support key procurement decisions”, it said.
– Unmasking problems –
The NAO found that PestFix, a pest control company, was mistakenly put in the high priority lane and then delivered 600,000 masks which failed to meet the government’s PPE specifications.
According to a BBC report this week, medical gowns supplied by PestFix also failed to meet correct standards but the government’s Health and Safety Executive came under “political” pressure to allow their use.
The NAO report listed other companies, including ones engaged in public relations and artificial intelligence, linked to serving ministers that benefited from fast-track contracts.
It did not suggest any impropriety, but said the awards lacked transparency. The watchdog’s findings come after the Sunday Times reported last weekend that the government had awarded £1.5 billion during the first wave of the pandemic to companies linked to the Conservative party.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the government’s approach, in response to the newspaper’s report. “That’s the nature of what happens when you bring in a huge range of people to help with what has been a massive challenge,” he told Times Radio on Monday.
Any suggestion of political cronyism in the contracts was “not a fair or accurate reflection of what went on”, Hancock said. But Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, said government mistakes unearthed in the NAO report could be the “tip of the iceberg”.
“It’s bad enough that it set up a ‘high priority lane’ to fast-track companies with the right connections,” the opposition Labour politician said.
“But the failure to track how half the companies had ended up on it made it impossible to ensure proper safeguards were in place,” she said.
“The government needs to come clean and immediately publish all the contracts it’s awarded so far.”