UK

PPE firm boss blasts ministers’ over ‘VIP lane’ for large contracts

PPE firm boss blasts ministers’ over ‘VIP lane’ for large contracts after being ignored despite having huge stocks ready to go and getting ‘frustrated’ by inactivity – as he faces MPs probing deals handed to firms with Tory connections

The head of one of the UK’s largest PPE firms lashed out today at the Government’s ‘VIP lane’ for handing out massive contracts at the height of the pandemic, saying he was unaware it existed.

Thomas Martin, the chairman of distributor Arco, told MPs that the company had been ‘frustrated’ in attempts to supply the Government with equipment despite more than a decade of experience in the field.

He told how the family-owned firm had around £40million of stock sitting in warehouses when the pandemic broke but had eventually been forced to deal with individual hospitals to get equipment out to front-line staff.

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee are investigating the VIP lane which gave business leaders  access to the Government’s procurement scheme.

Questions have been raised over the ‘fast track’  way massive contracts were handed to firms,  sometime with little to no experience of PPE procurement, and whether minsters were right to intervene on behalf of firms run by people they knew.

Mr Martin told the PAC MPs the firm tried ministers, individual MPs, civil service officials in an attempt to dish out its stock. He even wrote to Lord Deighton, who ran the PPE procurement scheme but received no reply.

‘We had approved certified products sitting in our warehouse in the UK, we have a team in China who have been there for over 11 years who actually run the quality assurance and the ethical training, so they were on the ground and we could even provide details and supply chains going forward for four or five months to government colleagues,’ he said.

‘We really tried. If you have had a chance to read my letter to Lord Deighton then you can see we were frustrated and fearful for the fact that we could not deploy our sales force, our warehousing resource, our quality assurances and our technical expertise the length and breadth of the UK.

Thomas Martin, the chairman of distributor Arco, told MPs that the company he had been ‘frustrated’ by attempts to supply the Government with equipment despite more than a decade of experience in the field.

Questions have been raised over the 'fast track' way massive contracts were handed to firms, sometime with little to no experience of PPE procurement, and whether minsters were right to intervene on behalf of firms run by people they knew.

Questions have been raised over the ‘fast track’ way massive contracts were handed to firms, sometime with little to no experience of PPE procurement, and whether minsters were right to intervene on behalf of firms run by people they knew.

The National Audit Office report found more than 1,300 contracts worth £10.5billion were awarded by the Government with no competition whatsoever

The National Audit Office report found more than 1,300 contracts worth £10.5billion were awarded by the Government with no competition whatsoever

‘We ignored the official line, we were unaware of the unofficial line and we responded magnificently as we mobilised to support more than 290 NHS trusts and hospitals.’

In the end the firm did win contracts but for £14million, a fraction of the size of the deals handed out to firms with less experience in the field, MPs were told. 

It came a week after Health Secretary Matt Hancock was  accused of personally intervening to help a shamed former Tory minister land a £180million PPR contract.

The Health Secretary insisted that Brooks Newmark received no special treatment as he brokered a deal for international firms to supply millions of pairs of goggles to the NHS last year.

Mr Newmark, 63, a father of five, quit just months after being made minister for civil society in 2014 after he was exposed as having exchanged lewd photographs with a male journalist posing as a glamorous 20-year-old Tory PR woman.

A Freedom of Information probe by the Sunday Times discovered National Audit Office emails showing that last May, at the height of the first Covid lockdown, he lobbied the Government on behalf of a Hong Kong firm.

After a string of email exchanges with Mr Hancock and his senior aides the company was awarded a £178million deal in June.

But Mr Hancock angrily defended his conduct, saying it was ‘absolutely appropriate for anybody to get in contact with anybody at the Department of Health when the country desperately needed PPE’.

Last November a devastating report lifted the lid on cronyism and ineptitude in the programme that saw the Government spend £18billion on PPE and other equipment during the coronavirus crisis.

Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings were both drawn into the debacle after the spending watchdog said officials failed to consider potential conflicts of interests involving companies linked to them.

The National Audit Office revealed that officials had signed contracts for hundreds of thousands of facemasks which turned out to be unusable – wasting hundreds of millions of pounds.

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