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Covid-19: Government failed to meet procurement standards when spending billions during pandemic

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 21 January 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n197

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  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. London, UK

The government did not meet expected standards when spending billions of pounds of public money on contracts while dealing with the covid-19 pandemic, peers have been told.

Poor transparency, incomplete documentation, and questionable processes for government procurement during the pandemic last year were highlighted by experts appearing before the House of Lords public services committee during an evidence session for its inquiry into procurement and public services held on 20 January.

The committee’s peers quizzed representatives of public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) following the latter’s November 2020 report1 into government emergency procurement during the pandemic.

That report found there had been a lack of transparency and adequate documentation of some key decisions, such as why particular suppliers were chosen and how the government managed potential conflicts of interest when awarding contracts to procure goods and services quickly.

By 31 July 2020, more than 8600 contracts worth £18bn (€20bn; $25bn) related to the government’s response to the pandemic had been awarded, including those for personal protective equipment which accounted for 80% of these contracts.

Peers asked witnesses from the NAO whether government procurement during this time met the standards that the agency would expect for the public sector.

Charles Nancarrow, director of regulation at the NAO, giving evidence, said, “There are broad standards which underpin public procurements: fairness, meaning things like treating suppliers fairly, and transparency, about being clear and transparent on how the public procurement authorities are using public money.

“On transparency, there are legal and recommended timescales and requirements for publishing contract details, which are dependent on the nature and size of the contract.” The NAO found, however, that between January and July last year, only around 55% of the contracts agreed had been published in the required 90 day timeframe.

“We found standards of documentation on some of the contracts we looked at were not at the level that they needed to be,” said Nancarrow. “We also found some contracts had been awarded retrospectively after work had been carried out.” He added, however, “These were examples where the pace of procurements meant that it was difficult to comply with some of those procedures.”

Fellow witness Joshua Reddaway, value for money and head of practice commercial and contracting at the NAO, said, “We’ve seen a lot of public concern about the integrity of the system at the moment. We need the system to prove to the public that it is clean, safe, and that these decisions are being made properly. Unfortunately, the government were not in a position to show that they met that standard.”

Peers asked what needed to be done to ensure these matters were handled better in the future, while acknowledging that the government had published a green paper2 on transforming public procurement in December.

Nancarrow replied, “There are a number of different areas where there is learning, but a lot of it is to do with learning from the processes that were created, how well those worked, and making sure that they are in place for the next time this has to be done.”

Reddaway added, “The level of ambition for transparency in the government’s green paper is very welcome and something that we’ve been calling for for a long time.”