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The government should be investigated after again blowing millions of pounds of public cash on PPE that didn’t work, Labour has urged.
It comes after the revelation that 50m face masks, bought as part of a £252m contract with Ayanda Capital – a London firm that specialises in “currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing – proved essentially useless to health workers.
Ayanda insists the masks from China, which use ear-loop fastenings rather than head loops, meet specifications, but a government safety probe found they may not fit tightly enough.
The safety ruling was disclosed in a legal response to the Good Law Project.
It follows a series of other failed PPE deals during the coronavirus pandemic and demands for the National Audit Office (NAO) to intervene are growing.
“The face fit is either a pass or a fail and there are more fails on products with ear loops than there are on products with head harnesses,” says Alan Murray, chief executive of the British Safety Industry Federation.
“That means that it wouldn’t necessarily provide the protection that was required from it.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for an inquiry into the purchase of the masks.
He said: “For months we were told that the government was purchasing the right equipment for the front line. Yet again it hasn’t happened.
“There needs now to be an investigation, an inquiry, into what went wrong with this particular contract because it’s just not good enough to people who need that protective equipment that we find ourselves in this position.”
Since the outbreak, the government has been scrambling to buy PPE as much of the UK’s national stockpile was found to be out of date.
Among many failed PPE deals since March was a shipment of medical gowns from Turkey. The RAF was drafted in to fly in the 400,000 gowns but a UK safety inspection found them unsafe.
The government also disclosed in court papers that the original approach to sell the masks came from a businessman called Andrew Mills, director at a company called Prospermill, which had secured exclusive rights to the full production capacity of a large factory in China to produce masks and offer a large quantity almost immediately.
The legal document revealed Mills requested DHSC’s contractual counterparty should be Ayanda rather than Prospermill, as Ayanda already had an established international banking infrastructure that could be used to effect the necessary payments overseas, whereas Prospermill’s own bank had indicated it could take some time to set this up on its own account.
The government also said in court papers that Mills is an adviser to the UK Board of Trade and a senior board adviser at Ayanda.
Mills has said his position played no part in the award of the contract, the broadcaster reported.
Rachel Reeves, Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister, has also called for an investigation.
She said: “It is astounding that ministers allowed the national PPE stockpile to run down and then spent millions with an offshore finance company with no history of providing vital equipment for the NHS.
“Many health and care workers experienced inadequate protection, relied on community donations and even bought their own PPE from DIY shops.
“Ministers repeatedly assured the country that things were fine, yet lives of health workers were lost, the infection was spread in health settings while all that time masks bought by the government could not be used for their intended purpose.
“The case for the National Audit Office to investigate the Conservative government’s mishandling of PPE is overwhelming and as well as apologise, ministers must urgently learn lessons to save lives in the future.”
Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the all party parliamentary group on coronavirus Layla Moran said the government has “serious questions to answer over this shocking waste of taxpayers’ money”.
She said: “We urgently need a clear strategy for procuring PPE so that NHS and care staff on the frontline are not left without.
“That should include a review of the process for handing out contracts to prevent these colossal errors from happening again.”
The government has said: “There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards.”