Britain’s biggest PPE suppliers were “ignored” by the Government as the scramble for masks and gowns became a “feeding frenzy” for opportunists with friends in high places, MPs have heard.
Arco, which was founded in 1884, employs 1,600 UK staff and has extensive experience supplying PPE, secured just £14 million worth of contracts.
Meanwhile smaller firms – many of which had no experience in the field – were handed hundreds of millions in deals via the “VIP lane”.
Matt Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care (DSHC) is locked in a High Court battle over the so-called “VIP lane” – which allowed friends and contacts of ministers and officials to “jump the queue” for lucrative contracts at the peak of the pandemic.
Arco chief Thomas Martin said certified stock was sitting in his firm’s warehouse as he and his team struggled to get the attention of the Government’s procurement team.
Despite having stock available and a tried and tested supply chain, he said his team were unaware that a “fast-lane” existed for offers of support for the government.
“In the end we took matters into our own hands, and we worked around the system that you were trying to control,” Mr Martin told the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
“We responded directly to a number of approaches from NHS Trusts …we tried to access the portal, we were unaware of the fast track principles, we then escalated through a number of ministers, MPs and the cabinet office and were still unsuccessful.”
Mr Martin said he had written to Lord Deighton, an advisor to Matt Hancock, to alert him to the situation, but received no response.
“We really tried,” he said.
“And if you read my letter to Lord Deighton you’ll see we were frustrated and fearful for the fact that we could not deploy our sales force, our warehousing resource, our quality assurance and our technical expertise the length and breadth of the UK.”
He added: “I believe [The Department of Health and Social Care] were dealing with an exponential rise in offers without any filtering in place to decide what was a bona fide offer and what was a speculative offer.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Stoute, CEO of major PPE supplier Full Support Healthcare (FSH), said she had warned the government they faced imminent supply issues as early as December 2019.
“We started to talk to them about stock issues in December 2019,” She said.
“All of the hubs in the country were emptying. There was no stock and hospitals had started to call, to say they were in a panic. It took all of December and January to beg [the Government] to release the Brexit stock as a matter of emergency, whilst we went to production full-scale in the background, and urged them to place orders on products that were running out.
“There were three suppliers providing a particular product, all three based in Wuhan, and I made a call to say: ‘You’re going to have a major problem on this, because nothing is coming out of Wuhan. You need to ring the other two suppliers and buy everything you can get your hands on. You’re going to need a huge amount, it doesn’t matter where it comes from, just get the product’.
“The person I was speaking to in inventory tried to escalate that and was ignored – and was in a very stressed state about it.”
Ms Stoute said her firm risked financial ruin by ramping up production massively while the Government were still trying to understand the scale of the crisis.
She added: “We’d already gone to production for things we couldn’t afford to pay for, waiting for the Government to catch-up.”
Ms Stoute said the Government gives her firm a forecast of what PPE they will need for the winter every year, which they ignore, because it’s always less than the year before – and roughly half what the NHS needs.
She added: “Every single winter there is a shortage that is covered up by the fact that we over order.”