An inquiry must be held into the purchase of 50m masks that were later deemed unsuitable for use by NHS workers, the Labour leader has said.
The £252m medical supplies contract was awarded to an investment firm in April, as ministers desperately sought to replenish the UK’s dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the height of the country’s coronavirus epidemic.
“For months we were told that the government was purchasing the right equipment for the frontline. Yet again it hasn’t happened,” Keir Starmer told reporters during a visit to north Wales on Thursday.
“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.”
Two organisations are seeking judicial review of the decision to award the contract to Ayanda Capital, which describes itself as specialising in “currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing”.
In a legal letter to EveryDoctor and the Good Law Project, the government acknowledged that millions of masks were unsuitable because of concerns that they had ear-loops, rather than head-loops, meaning they cannot be fastened sufficiently tightly.
The letter also revealed that the initial approach to the government was made by Andrew Mills, an adviser to the international trade secretary, Liz Truss. Mills, who is identified as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade that Truss chairs, is said to have gained rights to the production capacity of a Chinese factory through a firm he set up in February 2019.
The government said he then asked for the contract to be signed with Ayanda, to which it says he is a senior board adviser and which is owned by his business associate, because it had more suitable banking infrastructure. Mills told the BBC his Board of Trade position played no part in the award of the contract, the broadcaster reported.
The government’s letter says 43.5m of the unsuitable masks have already been delivered and are in the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) logistic chain, and it is thought they will not be used in the NHS.
Based on incomplete Whitehall figures, the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor estimate the 50m masks would have cost more than £150m of public money. Court papers show the government agreed to pay £41.25m on commencement to secure the manufacturing capacity.
Under the deal, Ayanda also supplied 150m of another type of mask, which the government says are unaffected but will be subject to further testing in the UK before any are released for NHS use.
Jolyon Maugham, the director of the Good Law Project, said: “Good Law Project wrote to government on three contracts each worth over £100m – with respectively a pest control company, a confectioner and a family hedge fund.
“Each of those contracts has revealed real cause for alarm – including, on Ayanda, that around £150m was spent on unusable masks. What other failures remain undiscovered?”
Julia Patterson, the founder of EveryDoctor, said: “It is horrifying that during the worst crisis in the NHS’s history, the government entrusted large sums of public money in the hands of companies with no experience in procuring safe PPE for healthcare workers.”
The Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, said a clear strategy for procuring PPE was urgently needed, adding: “The government has serious questions to answer over this shocking waste of taxpayers’ money.”
The government declined to comment on ongoing legal proceedings but a spokesman has said: “Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the frontline.
“Over 2.4bn items have been delivered and more than 30bn have been ordered from UK-based manufacturers and international partners to provide a continuous supply, which meets the needs of health and social care staff both now and in the future.
“There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with the necessary due diligence undertaken on all government contracts.”
On its website Ayanda says it is “a family office focused on a broad investment strategy”, adding: “We focus on currency trading, offshore property, and private equity and trade financing.”
Ayanda has been contacted for comment.