In responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, government departments and public bodies have needed to procure enormous volumes of goods, services and works with extreme urgency, particularly personal protective equipment (PPE). But the pandemic had an extraordinary impact on global demand for, and supply of, PPE. Demand rocketed in March 2020 and, at the same time, global supply declined. The result was an extremely overheated global market, with desperate customers buying huge volumes of PPE often from new suppliers and pushing up prices. The Cabinet Office issued information and guidance on public procurement regulations in response to the pandemic, highlighting that departments and public bodies were able to procure goods, services and works with extreme urgency using regulation 32(2)(c) of The Public Contracts Regulations 2015. The regulation allows departments and public bodies to make direct awards of contracts to any supplier if they have an urgent requirement for goods, services or works due to an emergency, without undergoing a formal competition, subject to meeting certain criteria.
By 31 July 2020, the government had awarded over 8,000 contracts for goods and services in response to the pandemic, with a value of £18 billion. Most of these contracts (over 6,900) were for PPE. The PPE contracts had a combined value of more than £12 billion and committed the Department for Health and Social Care (the Department) to buying 32 billion items of PPE. The Department intended to build up a stockpile of PPE that could last four months, in addition to meeting immediate needs. To identify suppliers which could provide this PPE, to support new UK manufacturers that had not previously made PPE, and to distribute the PPE to care providers, the Department created a parallel supply chain.