finance

Labour calls for inquiry into purchase of 50m unusable face masks


An inquiry must be held into the purchase of 50m masks that were later deemed unsuitable for use by NHS workers, Keir Starmer 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,” the Labour leader 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.


Boris Johnson said he was very disappointed that the shipment was unusable. But he said Britain had “achieved a colossal race against time” to obtain supplies of equipment and stockpile it in case of a second wave of coronavirus in the autumn and winter.

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?”

The Covid-19 pandemic is currently unfolding in “one big wave” with no evidence that it follows seasonal variations common to influenza and other coronaviruses, such as the common cold, the World Health Organization has warned.

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics. Until now that had been what was expected from Covid-19.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back in a second wave?

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

In June 2020, Beijing suffered from a new cluster of coronavirus cases which caused authorities to re-implement restrictions that China had previously been able to lift. In the UK, the city of Leicester was unable to come out of lockdown because of the development of a new spike of coronavirus cases. Clusters also emerged in Melbourne, requiring a re-imposition of lockdown conditions.

What are experts worried about?

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

However Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, says “‘Second wave’ isn’t a term that we would use at the current time, as the virus hasn’t gone away, it’s in our population, it has spread to 188 countries so far, and what we are seeing now is essentially localised spikes or a localised return of a large number of cases.” 

The overall threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry is that with a vaccine still many months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter BeaumontEmma Graham-Harrison and Martin Belam

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 Liberal Democrat 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.



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