A DAMNING report into UK Government procurement during the Covid-19 crisis found some firms were referred by officials, ministers’ offices, members of the House of Lords, MPs and health professionals through a “high-priority” lane.

The National Audit Office (NAO) found from March to July 2020 the Government awarded around £10.5 billion of new contracts without any competition under emergency procurement regulations.

They say they found, in some circumstances, "a lack of documentation around key procurement decisions such as why particular suppliers were chosen".

The report says in April the “high-priority” lane was set up to follow up on leads from politicians or senior officials. Suppliers fast-tracked through this lane were more likely to be awarded with contracts than those put through the standard channel.

“About one in 10 suppliers processed through the high-priority lane (47 out of 493) obtained contracts compared to less than one in 100 suppliers that came through the ordinary lane (104 of 14,892),” the report says.

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The watchdog was also concerned that contracts are not being published in a timely manner – with nearly half of the contracts worth over £25,000 awarded up to July still to be published.

The report comes after months of reports of contracts being awarded to firms without competition. Some companies were found to have links to the Conservative Party.

Head of the NAO Gareth Davies said while there were “exceptional circumstances” at play, 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”.

He added: “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.”

He said that it was “right” for an emergency procurement approach to be used in the circumstances of the pandemic.

“The issue it obviously gives rise to, though, is how do you secure public trust in the way you used money in that emergency situation.”

Davies went on to say that as the Government was inundated with PPE offers it was “quite reasonable” to “find a way of sifting the credible offers from the others”.

But the use of the “unusual” process meant it was important to properly document decisions.

With the UK in the midst of a second Covid-19 wave, he said: “It’s really important that those areas are tightened up because we’re not out of this pandemic yet, there may still be a need for emergency procurement – hopefully less than at the peak.

“So these are not just theoretical recommendations, we think it’s really important that they are put into effect straight away.”

Meanwhile, Labour’s Rachel Reeves said: "This report confirms that this Tory Government’s approach to procurement has fallen far short of what this country deserves. Lessons must be learned.

“The National Audit Office has shown how, at best, this incompetent government can’t even get basic paperwork right. At worst, that the Government may be deliberately attempting to cover their tracks, avoid scrutiny or withhold information from the public while wasting taxpayer money.

“From paying for useless PPE to a maintaining Serco's failed contract tracing system, we have seen disastrous decisions which have squandered public money and held back our country's response to Covid-19. The country deserves to have confidence their money is being spent effectively by the Government – and to know without doubt that friends and donors to the Conservative Party aren't profiting from this pandemic.”

Meg Hiller, the chairwoman of the Commons spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, added: “The fact that there is this fast track VIP lane where people inside Whitehall or the Westminster bubble can recommend people, the fact that contracts haven’t been published, so we can’t see what happens – they have been late getting that information out there – all smacks of secrecy and hiding things.”

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project which has been bringing judicial reviews against the UK Government over PPE contracts in recent months, said some of the report’s findings “reflect what we have been saying for months”.

The Department of Health and Social Care has yet to comment on the NAO report, but when previously asked about emergency procurement said: “All contracts to help with our fight against coronavirus have been awarded in line with public contracts regulations, which is consistent with Cabinet Office guidance. This allows the department to directly award contracts to procure goods, services and works with extreme urgency in exceptional circumstances.

“Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously.”