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British PM defends COVID-19 procurement after "chumocracy" accusations

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his government’s handling of the procurement of protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, after a spending watchdog said suppliers with political links had been fast-tracked.

Level 1 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is seen at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, as the number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases grow around the world, in London, Britain April 1, 2020. Picture taken April 1, 2020. To match Special Report HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/BRITAIN-PATH REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

The National Audit Office (NAO) said there had been a lack of transparency and a failure to explain why certain suppliers were chosen, or how any conflict of interest was dealt with, in procurement deals between March and the end of July worth 18 billion pounds ($24 billion).

Details about some of the 10.5 billion pounds worth of contracts awarded without any competition were missing, and other agreements were drawn up only after companies had started on the work, the NAO said.

The watchdog’s head, Gareth Davies, acknowledged there were exceptional circumstances but said openness was essential if the government was to maintain public trust.

“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.

The government said it had needed to respond urgently to the coronavirus crisis.

“We shifted heaven and earth to get 32 billion items of PPE (personal protective equipment) into this country,” Johnson told parliament. “I’m very proud of what has been achieved.”

The NAO said that by July 31, the government had awarded 8,600 contracts in response to the pandemic, with the vast majority for PPE.

A “high-priority lane” was set up to assess potential PPE leads from government officials, politicians and senior health staff, it said.

While one in 10 suppliers from the high-priority lane got contracts, just one in 100 from the ordinary lane did, it said.

The NAO examined 20 contracts. It found departments failed to document some decisions, such as why a supplier was chosen or whether risks such as potential conflicts of interest were considered.

It highlighted a 550,000-pound contract awarded to Public First, a company that delivers focus group and communication services, that had links to senior minister Michael Gove. But it said there was no evidence Gove had been involved in the awarding of the contract.

In recent weeks, newspapers have accused the government of running a “chumocracy” with contracts, including for the purchase of what turned out to be unusable PPE, and appointments made to those with family or business links to those in power.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said all contracts should be published and subjected to “full transparency and accountability”.

The NAO said the Cabinet Office had asked for an internal review of six PPE contracts that had attracted media attention and found “there were some gaps in the documentation, such as why some suppliers which had low due diligence ratings were awarded contracts”.

It added: “We found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”

Editing by Stephen Addison and Timothy Heritage