Fisking the UK Government respose to the NAO report on COVID procurement

Last week I mentioned here the National Audit Office Report on COVID procurement which painted the UK Government procurement practice in a terrible light.

Predictably, the Government responded with a note published on the Cabinet Office website. Said note, unfortunately, constitutes a prime example of a non-response response, that is it does not really address the criticisms of the report and simply provides just enough cover for the Government to claim it has responded to the report.

Since denial isn't a river in Egypt, the Government's response makes for great fisking, which is what I will be doing in this post. Today, I will focus on the first half of the post since it contains the general response to the report and will leave the "claims" section for tomorrow.

So, let's dive in:


I find it interesting that the Government decided to start its response by talking about PPE, which was not really the focus of the NAO's report.

In any case, why didn't the UK had appropriate stock levels of PPE when the news from China were 3 months old by April? Why didn’t the UK do a centralised deal with China for PPE like Ireland did in March?

And if the "height of the crisis" was in April, why were the majority of the contracts entered into from May to June and Felixstowe clogged with unused PPE today?

You had to deploy "hundreds of officials to work night and day" because of the (in)decisions on the run up to March, including not really taking into account the learnings from Operation Cygnus. Incompetence *is not* a grounds for use of the negotiated procedure without prior notice.


Of course it was necessary to source PPE at short notice, but the reasons and responsibility for such need lie exclusively with the Government and its behaviour on the run up to March.

And has the PPE been delivered or is it still sitting unused in warehouses? Because if it is sitting for months in warehouses then by definition it wasn't needed and whatever amount was bought without competition is, by definition, illegal since there was no urgency for such quantity of PPE.


Funny you would mention that, since the current NAO report is not really about the ventilators but it does include some interesting information, namely that the government spent £569 million in the ventilator project.

Now, based on the information available in March, indeed there was an unexpected and unforeseeable beforehand demand for ventilator capacity based on the news from China (the same ones that also mentioned the need for extra PPE…). The Government was correct in the assessment of the need for further ventilation capacity in March, but completely wrong in its mindboggling decision of throwing millions to companies without any track record in developing medical devices. Not a single new design ventilator was approved for deployment let alone produced. There were one or two models which were slightly modified from existing (and MHRA/EMA approved) devices to enable higher production levels.

As for the Dyson et all contracts, those were IMHO illegal since the companies never had the necessary expertise to carry them out as it was proved by the lack of approval of their machines for deployment in the health sector. And even if they did, the time lag between designing, validating and deploying units *at scale* ensured that they would only make it to the field well after the first wave had passed. As such, they could never comply with the urgency requirement either.


Well, if that is the case ('robust processes') then it is time you go back to the drawing board and re-do most of it, namely the clear preference for negotiated procedure without prior notice which is an exceptional procedure, for which the grounds for use need to be met in every single contract awarded directly and not in bulk “because we’re in a pandemic.”

It would be *very* surprising if the NAO found evidence of minister involvement in procurement decisions bearing in mind that they only looked at a *small sample* of contracts and the interviews with key individuals (number unknown) did not focused on the role of Ministers or other government officials, but instead on the Government Commercial Function, Crown Commercial Service and Government Internal Audit Agency.

In other words, in what concerns the interviews, which were the most likely method to yield this kind of information, they were not looking for ministerial interference.

I'm not claiming here that ministerial interference happened, jus that the NAO was not looking for it in this report.


For once I will cut the Government some slack here. When you have to buy so much of a category of goods so quickly with everyone else in the world scrambling for supplies, you will get some duds. The urgency (partially self-inflicted) does change the risk/benefit analysis regarding the route to market and the use of middlemen.

The issue, however, is how you reached those duds and what lessons were effectively learned from it. Claiming that the report's recommendations will be addressed "in due course" is kicking it to the long grass and ensuring no meaningful changes will occur.

Let's conclude with what the Government did not respond to in the main body of its note and, frankly, they're not addressed in full either in the "Claims" section of the note:

  1. The existence of a VIP route
  2. Contract management/risk management failings
  3. Awarding contracts to firms with no prior expertise in the field of PPE

For me those are some of the key questions about the UK Government COVID-19 procurement response that we’re yet to see fully explained and justified.