Government in dispute over ‘not fit for purpose’ PPE costing £1.2bn

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”.

The Good Law Project campaign group said it 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 by value of the PPE we bought was the subject of potential litigation”.

He told The Independent: “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.”

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 referred to 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.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched an inquiry into the use of communication channels at the health department following reports Lord Bethell and former health secretary Matt Hancock routinely used private email accounts to discuss government business.

The Independent has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for comment.

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