By Samantha Bader
After recovering from COVID-19, Boris Johnson must have thought he was through the worst of this pandemic. Unfortunately for him, it appears otherwise. The British National Audit Office (NAO) has come out with their report about the British government’s spending response to the pandemic, and it does not paint a pretty picture.
In a frantic attempt to procure personal protective equipment and other health related contracts, the NAO has found that 58% of the contracts were awarded without the proper competitive tendering process. This means that £10.5 billion of the £18 billion contracts given out by the government were done so under limited oversight.
The UK government made the decision to waive the normal process for business contracts early into the pandemic in hopes that it would allow their ministers to procure PPE more quickly. However, the NAO says that that doesn’t explain why a “clear trail of documents to support key procurement decisions was sometimes missing” .
Cabinet minister Julia Lopez fired back at these NAO findings by saying, “[an] unprecedented global pandemic that has posed the biggest challenge to the U.K. in a generation” led to the need “to procure contracts with extreme urgency.”
Adding to the public suspicion around these contracts is the irrefutable fact that the NAO found conclusively that companies with prior associations to Tory MPs were given priority in the handing out of contracts. Boris Johnson’s government has responded to this by saying, “the National Audit Office found no evidence that ministers had been involved in either the award or management of the contracts”.
This will do little to alleviate public suspicion, especially as the NAO published specific details of contracts that appear to have been given out due to nepotism. There was a deal with research firm Public First, whose owners had “previously advised or worked with” Tory Cabinet minister Michael Gove.
More importantly, there was a contract signed with Ayanda Capital. They supplied the UK government with 50 million masks that could not be used for their original purpose at a cost of £155m. Mistakes do happen, but the deal was brokered by a businessman who was an adviser to the government’s Board of Trade at the time.
Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said: “The government needs to come clean and immediately publish all the contracts it’s awarded so far.”
While this all reeks of impropriety, the NAO was also quick to acknowledge that it is not illegal for the government to have waived the regulations for public contracts during a national crisis. It is allowable as part of an emergency response to any national threat, and the pandemic certainly qualifies as such.
The current Tory government in the UK has long faced criticism from their opposition for their improper handling of government power and influence. While the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly unprecedented, that does not mean that all checks and balances of government should simply be ignored or forgotten about. One hopes that any paperwork discrepancies can be remedied by the MPs in short notice, as the last thing England needs is for more public distrust of government institutions.
Photo by Bruno Vieira, Unsplash