NAO report 

The key document for this debate is the National Audit Office (NAO) report, Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic, 18 November 2020.

The NAO concluded:

“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.”

 The NAO have also published:

Government response

Cabinet Office, Statement on government procurement following this week’s NAO report, 19 November 2020

See also the answers to parliamentary questions PQ 117358, answered 30 Nov 2020, and PQ 116549, answered 23 November 2020.  Answers to other questinons on procurement and coronavirus are available via Parliamentary Search [internal link] or the Find Written Questions and Answers service on the Parliament website. 

Other parliamentary information

Commons Library, Covid-19 contracts and public procurement, debate pack, 13 Oct 2020 

Petition: Hold a public inquiry into Government contracts granted during Covid-19, petition created by Christopher Humphris on 3 September 2020, which had received 114,510 signatures on 2 December 2020    

Personal Protective Equipment: Procurement House of Lords debate, Thursday 19 November 2020

Covid-19, House of Commons debate, Wednesday 18 November 2020

Public Accounts Committee, Covid-19: Government procurement, and contracts for PPE, ongoing inquiry


Watchdog calls for UK government to provide evidence for PPE contracts, Financial Times, 1 December 2020

Forget due process. ‘Chumocracy’ is far more valuable to the Conservative government, Rachel Reeves (Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster), The Independent, 22 November

Covid-19: Government has spent billions on contracts with little transparency, watchdog says, British Medical Journal, 18 November 2020, BMJ 2020;371:m4474

Covid spending: Watchdog finds MPs’ contacts were given priority, BBC News, 18 November 2020

Watchdog criticises government over awarding of £17bn Covid contracts, Financial Times, 18 November 2020

Legal action

The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit organisation, has started legal action against the government in relation to several Covid-19 related contract awards – their webpage The PPE Fiasco has further information.

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