In the months following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 in the UK, government awarded around £18 billion of contracts using emergency procurement regulations to buy goods, services and works to support its response to the pandemic. Government was having to work at pace, with no experience of using emergency procurement on such a scale before and was developing its approach at the same time as procuring large quantities of goods and services quickly, frequently from suppliers it had not previously worked with, in a highly competitive international market. This procurement activity secured unprecedented volumes of essential supplies necessary to protect front-line workers. Our separate report on the supply of PPE looks in detail at the extent to which demand for that equipment was met and the value-for-money achieved.
While government had the necessary legal framework in place to award contracts directly, it had to balance the need to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly, with the increased commercial and propriety risks associated with emergency procurement. We looked in detail at a sample of contracts selected on a risk basis. Although we found sufficient documentation for a number of procurements in our sample, we also found specific examples where there is insufficient documentation on key decisions, or how risks such as perceived or actual conflicts of interest have been identified or managed.
In addition, a number of contracts were awarded retrospectively, or have not been published in a timely manner.
This has diminished public transparency, and the lack of adequate documentation means we cannot give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases. While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, there are standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust.