Background to the report

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has recorded a higher level of fraud in the accounts we audit. The amount of fraud reported in the accounts the NAO audited rose from £5.5 billion in the two years before the pandemic to £21.0 billion in the two years after. £7.3 billion of the £21 billion related to temporary COVID-19 schemes, most of the rest relates to benefit fraud.

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This reflects the nature of the government’s response to the pandemic, including the rapid implementation of large new spending and loan programmes.

In an emergency, the government may need to set up new protocols for spending very quickly. This can include spending through:

  • contracts
  • direct awards to the public and businesses
  • loans

In our previous reports, we have identified areas where fraud or propriety issues can arise when spending at pace. We have also identified areas of good practice, where fraud or propriety risks were managed effectively despite the pressures of an emergency response.

Scope of the report

This report identifies insights and lessons learned for government departments.

We reviewed over 60 reports, examined progress against our recommendations, interviewed 18 government departments and also held cross-government workshops.

Lessons for the government

The report sets out seven high level lessons with recommendations on what the government can do now to better prepare for spending in the next emergency.

  1. Be clear on governance and rules. Public bodies may need to streamline their usual decision-making and governance arrangements so they can make faster decisions, but they need to do so in ways that still allow for robust oversight and are within normal public spending rules.
  2. Prioritise, but communicate that you will return to things you cannot cover immediately. Accounting Officers cannot forgo their responsibilities to protect propriety, but need a framework to make decisions on competing issues.
  3. Embed the fraud risk management cycle. It is crucial that the government sets a clear tone from the outset as to how the risk of fraud will be managed during a crisis.
  4. Create flexible counter-fraud capability with the right people and skills across government, who can be deployed at pace.
  5. Plan for the data you will need. There can be insufficient time to collate or agree how data can be shared during an emergency. Consider what inter-departmental data sharing arrangements can be set up now.
  6. Increase transparency. Emergency spending increases the need for transparency over how decisions have been made and who has received money.
  7. Plan how to buy in a seller’s market. The government needs a clear playbook for buying in a seller’s market because, in an emergency, it may have reduced commercial leverage with suppliers. 


Publication details

Press release

View press release (8 Feb 2024)