£9 billion of taxpayers money has been forked out on PPE – that’s what the Daily Telegraph paper revealed last month.
Let me say it again, £9,000,000,000 of your taxpayers money. Also in the article is a link to those who were profiting from these purchases, link here courtesy of the Daily Telegraph.
In a special investigation, The Telegraph can reveal how billions were spent on protective gear in a mad rush at the start of the pandemic
As the first wave of Covid raged in April, a global stampede for the kit needed to keep doctors and nurses safe left Britain’s hospitals desperate for protective equipment and almost out of surgical gowns.
Amid a mounting sense of panic, an NHS procurement official was forced to write to factory bosses in China asking them to exempt factory workers from the five-day public holiday in Jiangsu province so they could continue to make critical equipment to ship halfway around the world.
Chinese workers may have seen the irony in the UK’s request to force them to work through a holiday celebrating labourers. The unusual letter captures the panic inside Whitehall as officials frantically tried to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
At least £9bn of taxpayer money has been forked out on PPE. Attention is now turning to how this money was spent – and whether the beneficiaries earned their keep.
In a major investigation, The Telegraph can reveal the chaos behind the rush to respond to the pandemic, and tensions between Government and businesses as the crisis has worn on.
Interviews with PPE suppliers, contractors and Whitehall insiders expose a race to stay ahead of Covid, backed by unprecedented sums of public money and the full might of the civil service machine.
But this splurge on protective equipment, a testing regime and overflow Nightingale hospitals has raised questions over whether the spending truly represents value for money.
The Government’s reliance on the private sector has also been scrutinised because stocks of some types of PPE were almost entirely depleted when Covid-19 took hold in late February. The National Audit Office (NAO) found that the UK’s stockpile at the time was “inadequate”.
Ministers have come under fire from campaigners and spending watchdogs over the lack of transparency surrounding the lightspeed outsourcing of billions of pounds worth of contracts to private companies, some of whom – including currency traders and cannabis researchers – had little experience of supplying PPE.
Nick Davies, of the Institute for Government think tank, says: “The Government was faced with difficult choices and daunting time pressures, but its failure to properly document its decisions and to follow transparency rules has left it and suppliers open to charges of impropriety.”
Allegations of cronyism have not helped with firms advised, owned by or otherwise linked to former Conservative ministers and politicians awarded contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds. One example is Randox, a firm advised by former Tory Cabinet minister Owen Paterson, which won contracts worth £480m, according to data firm Tussell. Randox and Paterson declined to comment.
Debbie White, the former boss of outsourcer Interserve, was called in to voluntarily oversee the creation of NHS Test & Trace. Her former employer turned down the chance to help run the system, insiders say, conscious of the potential for the deal to look like cronyism.
While on the one hand the Government has faced a backlash for handing vast sums to companies, its relationships with many private suppliers have simultaneously become strained.
Suppliers and consultants were asked to operate at great speed in the most difficult of circumstances but say that ministers left them to face the public’s wrath when things went wrong.
As campaigners began courtroom challenges against contracts they claimed were awarded illegally, outsourcers and private firms became increasingly annoyed that ministers were refusing to fight their corner.
A source who discussed the issue with a manager at Public First, a research firm named in a potential legal claim against the Government over public procurement, said: “They felt their noses had been bent out of joint. They agreed to do not very profitable work, and then were hung out to dry by the Government.”
Public First is run by former associates of Dominic Cummings – who was chief adviser to Boris Johnson until November – and of senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove. Public First is run by former associates of Dominic Cummings – who was chief adviser to Boris Johnson until November – and of senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove. The Cabinet Office, which handled the deal, said Gove was not involved in awarding the contract.
While relations between the Government and some contractors have soured, many of the most pressing problems during the pandemic were happening thousands of miles away from Westminster.
Chinese factories were ground zero in the global rush for PPE. A handful of firms dominated the market for the raw materials needed to make protective gear and prices were doubling weekly at the peak of the crisis, sources say.
Some factories had such difficulty getting raw materials that they struck deals making it their customers’ responsibility to source the materials needed to manufacture the goods ordered. In two weeks, the price for protective nitrile gloves increased by 450pc, according to one supplier.
As of July, the UK had spent £12.5bn on PPE that would have cost £2.5bn a year earlier, according to the NAO.
Dan England, chief executive of PestFix, which won at least £349m of contracts to supply PPE, says: “It was immediately clear that even if a European company was said to be supplying something, it was nearly always being supplied by the Far East. Therefore, logistics became our main problem.”
Suppliers also had to contend with the risk of orders being stolen. British Government officials were warned about piracy threats of routing cargo through the Middle East, Thailand and Vietnam as consignments were being stolen between flights, according to a letter from one supplier seen by The Telegraph.
Another threat was stock being siphoned off before it even left China, sources say. Several shipments ready and labelled for the Department of Health were sold to other buyers because they were not collected immediately, says one person involved in the procurement process.
Companies waiting for PPE shipments responded by sending agents to wait at the factories to make sure the gear they had ordered was not being sold out the back door at a higher price. Chinese police were called to factories on several occasions to deal with disputes over who was entitled to receive PPE consignments, according to a source managing one company’s approach in China.
Experts have warned that the Chinese new year celebrations in February, when workers travel home and workplaces shut, could soon have another major impact on global PPE supplies. Factories could close for as long as three weeks.
The UK has reportedly built up large stocks of PPE despite its apparent failure to meet a target set in September of ensuring that 70pc off the country’s needs be met by domestic manufacturers.
The NAO has estimated that only 12pc of PPE ordered through the Government’s supply chain between February and July came from UK manufacturers.
However, the watchdog found that the UK has overcorrected for its “inadequate” stocks by ordering five years’ worth. Earlier this month, disruption at Britain’s ports was partly blamed on 11,000 containers of PPE that had been left languishing for months in Felixstowe.
One of the most embarrassing episodes of the Government’s pandemic response came in May when The Telegraph revealed that much-hyped PPE delivery from Turkey was useless and did not meet UK standards. The PPE, flown in by RAF aircraft after several delays, was mostly produced by a Turkish firm that switched from making tracksuits and T-shirts as the virus spread in January.
The Department of Health is now turning to external auditors to conduct checks on the companies awarded contracts as financial due diligence was not carried out in advance, according to documents seen by The Telegraph.
With a vaccination programme underway and stocks of PPE far higher than they were in January, the crisis in Britain’s hospitals that rocked the civil service may finally be coming to an end.
But the showdown over how so much money was spent so fast, and whether the companies behind all that kit truly earned their pay, is only just beginning.