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Simon Carter

At the start of the Covid pandemic, the Tory government – having ignored NHS contingency planning and failed to stockpile sufficient PPE for health and care workers – was obliged to play catch-up when thousands of frontline workers and vulnerable people were cut down by the virus.

But instead of implementing a transparent public procurement plan, Johnson’s hapless government, using secret contracts, threw huge sums of money at dubious businesses, whose sole qualification was being chums with ministers. On 18 March, the Cabinet Office gave the go-ahead to departments and public bodies to award PPE contracts, no questions asked.

According to the National Audit Office (NAO) that examined this arrangement, some £18 billion was dished out from the public purse, with £10.5 billion of these contracts escaping any usual public procurement scrutiny. When quizzed about these dubious contracts, Boris Johnson retorted that he is “very proud with what’s been achieved”. Presumably, this ‘pride’ includes overspending on PPE procurement by a staggering £10 billion, according to the NAO. Moreover, much of the PPE ordered still hasn’t been delivered, and much of what has is unusable!

Like the earlier Brexit ferries contract scandal, shell companies sprung up like flowers after summer rain. Health minister Matt Hancock’s department awarded the majority of these contracts but insists the contracts were subject to “due diligence”.

However, in one contract, £253 million was bunged to Ayanda Capital for face masks, despite having no experience of PPE and the price being nearly double the going rate. To cap it all, the masks were of the wrong design! It’s reported that the contract was brokered by an Ayanda associate who had until recently been an advisor to Trade Secretary Liz Truss.

In another contract, P14 Medical – a small, loss-making company run by then Stroud Tory councillor Steve Dechan – received a £156 million contract to import PPE, without any public tendering.

The Cabinet Office also bunged £1.5 million to two New Zealand social media consultants who had worked on Boris Johnson’s 2019 election campaign. Similarly, contracts were awarded to two former aides to minister Michael Gove; and £3 million was handed over to an AI company that had worked with Boris Johnson’s former senior advisor Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave referendum campaign.

It’s also been revealed that a friend and former neighbour of health secretary Matt Hancock, with no previous experience of producing medical supplies, was awarded a contract to produce medical vials and plastic funnels by the health department. And the list goes on.

The NAO found that suppliers designated ‘high priority’ that enjoyed political connections, were ten times more likely to get PPE contracts than those that didn’t.

Now, Chancellor Rishi Sunak says the public purse can’t afford to give many frontline public sector workers a pay rise for years to come. Maybe teachers, local authority workers and civil servants, etc, should become consultants or PPE companies, then they can expect a large cheque in the post!

NHS medical supplies – privatised failure

The government’s PPE contracts scandal underscores what happens to public services when the market place and for-profit companies take over.

The NHS supplies service used to be publicly owned and run before the Blair Labour government privatised NHS Logistics in 2006. Unfortunately, the Prentis-led Unison trade union at the time ignored the interests and demands of its members in NHS Logistics to organise national strike action to defend the service.

Consequently, the privatised supplies organisation has been broken up and fragmented among a myriad of private companies, usually with no experience in medical supplies.

As an NHS supply chain worker told the Socialist in April this year: “Now the decisions are profit-driven, with much less medical input in the procurement and tendering process. This is partly why the quality of the PPE getting through to frontline staff has been so poor.”

The medical supply chain must be nationalised and fully reintegrated back into the NHS, under democratic workers’ control and management.