The UK spent £10 billion extra in inflated prices for personal protective equipment due to an "inadequate" stockpile and a surge in global demand, a report has concluded.
Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) procurement chiefs at the faced inflated prices for safety kit, paying 1,300 per cent more for some items compared with 2019 prices.
However, with the impact of the pandemic already starting to be felt across the world by early spring, officials paid "very high prices given the very unusual market conditions", its report said.
The findings come only a week after the Government spending watchdog found there was a "high-priority lane" established for PPE suppliers referred to the procurement team.
About one in 10 companies going through this route getting a contract, compared with one in 100 for those in the "ordinary lane".
NAO head Gareth Davies said: "As PPE stockpiles were inadequate for the pandemic, Government needed to take urgent action to boost supplies.
"Once it recognised the gravity of the situation ... the price of PPE increased dramatically, and that alone has cost the taxpayer around £10 billion."
Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, accused ministers of being "far too slow" to respond and were left paying "through the roof" for the frontline equipment.
"The pandemic caught the NHS on the wrong foot. The national stockpile was nowhere near big enough for a coronavirus outbreak - a consequence of the pandemic plans' fixation on influenza," the Labour MP said.
"The Government was far too slow to recognise how precarious the position was. When the penny finally dropped, DHSC had to scramble to buy what was left as prices went through the roof."
The NAO report noted that, between February and July, DHSC spent £12.5 billion on 32 billion items of PPE, with huge increases in the price paid compared with 2019.
This was due to the global surge in demand and restrictions on exports in some countries, it said.
This ranged from a 166 per cent rise in the cost of respirator masks to a 1,310% increase in the price of body bags.
The auditor concluded that, had the Government been able to buy PPE at 2019 prices, expenditure to July 2020 would have been £2.5 billion - £10 billion less than it paid.
The last-ditch efforts also meant that, by the time the PPE was ordered, it did not arrive in time for the first wave.
Action has since been taken to stockpile Covid-style gear for future use by NHS and social care staff.
Of the 32 billion items of PPE procured between February and July, only 2.6 billion items were delivered to frontline organisations in that period, the NAO said.
Demand was so high in April and May that stock levels were "negligible" for most types of protection, it added.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: "This report confirms that frontline workers didn't have access to adequate PPE early on in the pandemic, putting them at unnecessary risk.
"There is no doubt that a significant reason for the shortage was the Government's failure to prepare properly and take on board warnings about PPE stockpiles."
The findings come as the Public Accounts Committee concluded that ministers "lost a crucial month" when dealing with the shortage of ventilators to deal with Covid-19.