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Sat 17 April 2021

Sam Bright and Katie Tarrant unmask the Health and Social Care Secretary’s baseless claims about PPE procurement

In recent days, Matt Hancock has appeared in the media to deny reality, with claims that the country “never had a national shortage” of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the course of the Coronavirus pandemic.

However, this appears to be an example of Orwellian-style double-think from the Health and Social Care Secretary. For Byline Times yesterday spoke to Dr Julia Patterson, of the campaign group EveryDoctor, who flatly contradicted Hancock’s claim.

“We all know there was a problem with the supply,” she said. “Over 900 healthcare and social care workers in the UK have died of COVID-19. Many weren’t provided with sufficient PPE. Each one of those deaths deserves proper investigation.”

Indeed, a chaotic system resulted in tens of millions of pounds being spent on emergency PPE freight deliveries to the UK, even as the Government assured the public that its stockpiles were burgeoning. As supplies flooded into the country, the UK’s warehousing system seemingly struggled to cope – leaving equipment stranded at ports and airports.

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) has spent £584 million on air transport for the delivery of PPE alone since March 2020, Byline Times calculates. Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Air Charter Services have seen the biggest returns from these deals – contracted, in almost every case, to fly in the supplies from China.

This includes more than £7 million spent on air freight during November and December 2020. While one of the contracts stated that there was an “urgent need for PPE”, the Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office in December claimed that the UK had a “good stockpile which will not only see us through this winter but hopefully the period well ahead”. 

Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney, a member of the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises Government spending, believes that there should have been “no need for emergency air freight” at this time.

“These findings are enormously concerning but, sadly, not surprising,” she told Byline Times. “It’s long been clear that, in a mad scramble, itself a result of poor preparation, the Government went on a spending spree that lacked transparency, competition and, ultimately, value for money.   

As a member of the Public Accounts Committee I’ve been speaking with a number of concerned agencies, such as the National Audit Office [NAO], who share in our belief that taxpayers’ money has been poorly spent. It’s an issue we will certainly return to.”

The NAO condemned the Government in November for failing frontline workers with its “wasteful” and “inefficient” £15 billion PPE procurement effort, which included 195 million items identified by the NHS as unusable.

Now, the Auditor General of the NAO, Gareth Davies, has identified the biggest current issue: the Government does not know where all of its PPE is stored and has drafted in consultants to find it. 

“It certainly isn’t all sitting neatly in an NHS store somewhere,” Davies said.


Port Panic

PPE has arrived in the UK through two main routes: air freight, which is more expensive but faster; and sea freight, which is slower but cheaper.

Just as the cost of the equipment has soared during the Coronavirus pandemic, so has the cost of transport. Shipping prices per container have increased by more than three-fold since November due to Brexit and COVID-19. 

However, when the supplies arrive at ports and airports, there is often nowhere for it to go. In November, reports revealed that 11,000 containers of PPE were sitting at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, including more than six million pieces of unsafe PPE that was seized by Trading Standards in December. 

Unmoved until mid-December, these containers were estimated to be costing the taxpayer £1 million a day in storage charges. While the Port of Felixstowe confirmed to Byline Times that these containers were cleared within the following few weeks, it was reported that the backlog had been building since August. 

This means that the total cost of storing the Government’s eager orders of PPE, at one port alone, will have been somewhere in the region of £150 million. 

The Home Office revealed on 1 February that there were still up to 400 containers of PPE being held at British ports, although it appears as though the Government has just transferred many of the containers to airstrips – rather than official warehouses.

In mid-November, it was reported that thousands of containers of PPE were being moved from Felixstowe to “former air bases and vacant land” – as well as NHS distribution centres.

Gareth Davies, of the NAO, confirmed on 11 February that the Government still has “amounts” of PPE in storage containers around the country, some of which is still near docks.


‘Case for an Inquiry Couldn’t be Stronger’

The Government has not been forthcoming with details of its COVID-19 contracts.

Last week, Hancock was reprimanded by the High Court after it was found that he had acted unlawfully by repeatedly failing to publish the deals within 30 days, as is required by law.

This is despite the fact that £881 million in pandemic-response contracts have been awarded to Conservative Party donors – while firms with links to the Conservatives have supplied duff products or goods that simply haven’t arrived.

“Obscene cronyism has been the hallmark of the Government’s pandemic response,” Labour MP Dan Carden told Byline Times. “The enormous cost of acquiring supplies from abroad – including via handsomely-paid middlemen with connections to the Conservative Party – is even more galling when we know that many reliable, local suppliers were ignored.

“The case for a full public inquiry to uncover the true extent of the procurement scandal couldn’t be stronger.” 

Many of the firms that received contracts to import PPE from China are cashing in again, in order to fulfil the Government’s appetite for lateral flow tests.

According to its contracts with British Airways, the DHSC is seeking the rapid supply of COVID-19 tests as it is “currently limited in the face of very high global demand”.

So far, the Government has signed contracts (that we know about) with Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Air Charter Services – worth a handsome £25 million – to transport these tests from outside of the UK. 

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of these companies, which have merely responded to Government demand.

The DHSC has repeatedly insisted that the Government responded promptly and proportionately in purchasing PPE equipment – and that adequate due diligence was conducted on all prospective suppliers.

The Port of Felixstowe did not wish to comment further.

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