U.K.’s ‘Obscure’ PPE Process During Pandemic Challenged

A public-interest group told a London court that the U.K. wasted millions of pounds on Covid-19 personal-protective equipment as it rushed into contracts at the start of the pandemic.

Nearly 400 million pounds ($538 million) worth of protective gear, including masks and gowns, that were bought earlier in the year remain in storage and have never reached frontline doctors and nurses, the Good Law Project said in a court filing Thursday.

The group, which has backed several legal challenges to government policy, asked for permission to amend its lawsuit against the government in light of new evidence. The hearing, known as a judicial review, is currently scheduled for February.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced multiple lawsuits over his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, from the availability of medical equipment to student exam results. Criticism over the scarcity of equipment for hospital and care staff led to a rush to meet demand and since then, has raised questions about the procurement process.

The suit concerns three contracts for PPE from April and May. Britain encouraged companies to make offers to supply equipment, and then decided “on a basis which remains obscure,” the group said.

The U.K. appeared to enter into contracts “without seeking to estimate its immediate needs for particular items of PPE or to calculate whether those needs would be served by particular contracts,” the Good Law Project said.

“The government has been working tirelessly to deliver more than 5.4 billion items of PPE to the frontline so far, and almost 32 billion items have been ordered to meet the future needs of health and social care staff,” a government spokesperson said by email.

At the hearing Thursday, a judge denied two of the group’s requests to add arguments to the existing claims.

Market in Turmoil

Michael Bowsher, a lawyer for the government, said the “market was in turmoil” when the purchases were made and that the “whole point of this program was to find new sources.” He rejected any suggestion that PPE would be used without proper testing.

One of the contracts was with PestFix, a public health supplies firm to the pest control industry, for “isolation suits” for 32 million pounds.

Correspondence published by the Health and Safety Executive reveals these suits didn’t correspond with their description or with the contract specification, lawyers for the Good Law Project said. They hadn’t been tested against the applicable standards and HSE has refused to approve their use for that reason, according to the court filing.

“PestFix was contracted by the government to provide hooded isolation suits manufactured to EN14126 standard and delivered them successfully as per the contract specifications,” PestFix said in an emailed statement. “In inspecting them, the HSE were using the wrong paperwork and were instead looking to pass them into the NHS supply chain as surgical gowns with a EN13795 standard, which is why the products didn’t pass inspection.”

The second contract at issue was with Clandeboye Agencies, a confectionery company, for 25 million gowns valued at 107 million pounds. The NAO found that financial checks on the company were only performed after the contracts had been concluded and resulted in a “red” rating, Good Law Project said.

Clandeboye didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.

The third contract was for the supply of 252 million pounds worth of two types of masks by Ayanda, a London-based family office. The Good Law Projects’ lawyers say the government has accepted that 44.8 million of 50 million of FFP2 masks were in breach of technical specifications and not fit for purpose.

The National Audit Office criticized the government for “the waste of public money entailed by the unsuitability of the masks purchased,” the Good Law Project said. It estimates these unsuitable masks were worth around 155 million pounds.

In a statement on its website, Ayanda said it remained “confident that our masks are fit for use by NHS workers and these masks are currently in use by other healthcare systems in Europe and across the world.”

“The scale of what was purchased is extraordinary,” Jason Coppel, a lawyer for the Good Law Project, said. “We’re extremely concerned as to how much else there is to come out.”

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