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Government in dispute with suppliers over ‘not fit for purpose’ PPE costing £1.2bn, minister admits

Taxpayers’ money ‘abused’ says Labour, as health department considers legal action against firms

Adam Forrest
Thursday 02 September 2021 16:16 BST
Boris Johnson ‘very proud’ of PPE procurement despite scathing report

Boris Johnson’s government is currently in dispute with several companies over £1.2bn worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) deemed “substandard” or undelivered, it has emerged.

The government hopes to recover costs and is considering legal action over 40 separate contracts covering 1.7 billion items of PPE, a health minister has admitted.

Lord Bethell said the health department was still is discussions over masks, gowns, google and gloves which “have not been delivered or failed quality tests”.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner claimed ministers had “abused taxpayers’ money”. She told The Independent: “It is well past time that the government clawed back the taxpayers’ money that they have wasted on unsafe PPE and handed out to their cronies”.

Ms Rayner added: “Ministers must immediately publish details of every pound and penny that they have wasted and regularly update the public on how much taxpayers’ money they have recouped.”

The Good Law Project campaign group said the contracts in question amounted to 10 per cent of the £12bn spent on PPE at the peak of the pandemic – condemning “the scale of waste” overseen by ministers.

In April, the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told MPs that that “less than 0.5 per cent of the PPE procured did not meet the standards that we had set out”.

Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, said Mr Gove’s remarks “can’t be squared with today’s revelation that 10 per cent of the value of the PPE we bought was the subject of potential litigation”.

He said: “I suspect that even this 10 per cent figure is a grave underestimate of the scale of waste induced by government’s insistence on contracting with associates of ministers.”

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told The Independent that 7.6 per cent of the government’s overall PPE stock could not be supplied to frontline healthcare settings. “We are currently pursuing many options to repurpose and recycle items that are in this category,” said a spokesperson.

It follows accusations of “cronyism” over the Conservative government’s procurement process during the pandemic, with Labour claiming contracts had been “rife with conflicts of interest”.

Last year’s damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that firms pushed through a “VIP” lane were 10 times more likely to have been given contracts to supply PPE.

The NAO also found that just over £12bn was spent on 32 billion bits of PPE between February and July 2020, criticising “insufficient checks” which meant many of the items could not be used.

In July it emerged that a former Tory councillor was given a £120m government contract for protective shields which were left unused because of concerns about their quality.

Lord Bethell’s admission about the scale of disputes with suppliers came in a written response to Lib Dem peer Lord Lee, who asked how much had been reclaimed from firms providing equipment found to be “not fit for purpose”.

The health minister replied: “The department is working through all its personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts to identify instances where products have not been delivered or failed quality tests and will seek to recover the costs for undelivered or substandard PPE.”

Lord Bethell added: “As of 27 July 2021, the department was engaged in commercial discussions – potentially leading to litigation – in respect to 40 PPE contracts with a combined value of £1.2 billion covering 1.7 billion items of PPE.”

Baroness Sal Brinton, the Lib Dems’ health spokesperson in the Lords, said: it was “shocking” that the government was having to consider legal action over such a large amount of taxpayers’ money.

She added: “This latest admission reveals the scale of the issue … Ministers need to come clean about how we ended up in this situation and what safeguards they are going to put in place to prevent this from happening again.”

A DHSC spokesperson said: “There are robust processes in place to ensure government spending always provides value for money for the taxpayer.”

The government spokesperson added: “We have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to source life-saving PPE to protect health and care staff, and have delivered over 13 billion items to the frontline. As the National Audit Office recognised, all NHS providers they spoke to were able to get the equipment they needed in time.”

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