The British government denies any wrongdoing in how it procured personal protection equipment (PPE) to weather the Covid-19 pandemic, after the National Audit Office (NAO) found inadequate documentation and other lapses.

The watchdog looked into Prime Minister Boris Johnson cabinet’s efforts to buy a large number of face masks, face shields and other items that frontline workers needed to protect themselves from Covid-19. A NAO report published on Wednesday identified several shortcomings, but the government said Thursday that the auditors’ finds do not indicate any wrongdoing on the part of the officials, contrary to what some British media believe.

The auditors said in some of the contracts they looked into there was “insufficient documentation on key decisions” and because of that they couldn’t vouch that the government had mitigated risks on perceived or actual conflict of interest in all cases. NAO didn’t find any failures by ministers to disclose potential conflicts of interests.

Work on some contracts began even before they were formally vetted and awarded, which the government explained by the urgency of procurements. Some contracts were also not published for scrutiny in a timely manner, which “has diminished public transparency”, according to NAO.

In its response, the government said that it had to act under extraordinary circumstances on a vital task. “We are proud of our response and pay tribute to the hard work of officials who have secured these supplies,” it said.

We regret that some contracts have not been uploaded in a timely fashion as a result of prioritising staff’s time on securing life saving PPE for the NHS.

One particular issue mentioned by NAO and picked up by the media was the use of the so-called “high priority lane” for potential PPE contracts. It was reserved for leads submitted by government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords, senior NHS staff and other health professionals. These bids enjoyed a remarkably higher acceptance rate, compared to those on the normal lane, but the government denied any bias in the vetting process.

“The high priority mailbox allowed officials to more quickly assess offers from more credible sources, such as large companies with established contacts and more capable of supplying at speed,” it said. “The government also ensured that offers of support raised by opposition MPs … were dealt with expeditiously.”

It thanked NAO for its work and said it will follow the watchdog’s recommendations, but noted that the report was “based on an analysis of just 20 out of 8,600 contracts.”

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