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Ministers set aside normal transparency standards in scramble to secure PPE, public spending watchdog concludes

Commons public accounts committee warns the NAO's findings into government failures may only be the ‘tip of the iceberg’

MINISTERS set aside normal standards of transparency in their scramble to secure £18 billion of supplies and services to deal with the coronavirus crisis, the public spending watchdog has concluded.

Firms recommended by MPs, peers and ministers’ offices were given priority as the government raced against the rest of the world to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE), the National Audit Office (NAO) found.

Commons public accounts committee chairwoman Meg Hillier 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.

The NAO’s investigation comes with the government under intense pressure about claims of a “cronyvirus” culture which has seen key posts and contracts going to people linked to the Tories.

The report found that by July 31 more than 8,600 contracts with a value of £18 billion had been awarded, including £10.5bn 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, the NAO said.

About one in 10 companies going down this route got a contract, compared with one in 100 for those in the “ordinary lane.”

The NAO also found that 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.

And there was “inadequate documentation” in a number of cases on how risks, including potential conflicts of interest, had been managed, it said.

NAO chief Gareth Davies said: “At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, government had to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly while 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.”

Labour MP Ms Hillier added: “The government overlooked a serious conflict of interest, paid consultants for months before giving them contracts and purchased masks it knew weren’t up to scratch.”

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