Department of Health and Social Care looking into allegations over purchases in first year of pandemic
By Matthew Weaver
Mon 7, 2022
Officials told MPs they were looking into the slavery allegations and at contracts that led to the delivery of faulty or missing items. Photograph: David Herraez/Alamy
Ministers may have bought 3bn protective gloves that were manufactured using modern slavery in the first year of the pandemic, MPs have been told.
On Monday, officials from the Department of Health and Social Care told the public accounts committee they were investigating allegations that the gloves were produced by forced labour.
Jonathan Marron, director general of the department’s office for health improvement and disparities, said: “We have held just over 3bn gloves. We have concerns that the manufacturers may be engaged in an allegation of modern slavery, so we are investigating that. We do not obviously want to support modern slavery – that is the government’s position.”
Marron said if the allegations are proven, “I believe they’re contractually obligated to take the gloves back and return the money”.
Chris Wormald, the permanent secretary at the department, said he could not name the companies involved. Asked to clarify whether the 3bn gloves were pairs or individual items, Marron said: “We actually count individual gloves rather than pairs – I know it makes little sense.”
Marron also revealed that 176 PPE contracts signed during the pandemic, worth £3.9bn, were being examined over concerns about quality or non-delivery of items. This represents almost half of all the contracts signed and almost a third of the £12bn PPE budget, MPs heard. So far, 27 of these contracts, worth more than £1bn, are now the subject of legal action, and a further 59 are the subject of “commercial discussions”, Marron told MPs.
He added: “The range of issues we’ve got here are everything from non-performance and non-delivery through to problems on standards. We’re still working through what we think we can get back.”
Wormald defended the way the government bought PPE during the pandemic. “We were buying in an emergency situation,” he said. “The price was what is and you have a choice between either paying that price and having the PPE or not paying the price [and not having the PPE]. There wasn’t an alternative … If you were doing this again, you would do it better.”
Marron admitted that £673m worth of PPE bought during the pandemic was unusable, including counterfeit masks and aprons that were not water-resistant. But he pointed out that this represented only 3% of the items purchased. A further 10% of items have not been used because they do not meet NHS standards, he said. These have been sold or donated to schools and to other countries, the committee was told.
Marron also revealed the department had bought 768m eye protectors, when the NHS only needs 6m a month. “We have not seen levels of use anything at the level that we estimated,” he said.