The National Audit Office is to investigate the government’s procurement of personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic after court documents revealed millions of masks bought from an investment firm were unusable.
The probe from the NAO comes after the NHS has deemed the supplies – which were part of a £252m Department of Health and Social Care contract signed with Ayanda Capital in April – unsafe as they use the wrong kind of straps, court documents have revealed.
The deal included provision of 50 million high-strength “FFP2” medical masks, costing an estimated £150m to £180m.
But according to legal papers seen by The Times, there are concerns they cannot be used securely because they use elastic ear loops instead of straps that tie around the back of the head.
Ayanda have insisted the masks meet the specifications the government had set out when it made a call early on during the pandemic for companies to supply them with extra PPE stocks.
Tim Horlick, the company’s chief executive, said none of his company's products have ever been rejected by the health department for any reason.
He said: "In summary the masks met all government specifications and standards, the masks are not unusable or unsafe and the government has not wasted any money in purchasing these masks."
The firm also supplied 150 million Type IIR masks, which are subject to different regulations and may be used on the frontline once the NHS has completed further testing.
The information came out after ministers sent a legal response to a case brought by the Good Law Project, which is seeking a judicial review of the PPE procurement process.
The government has also disclosed the original approach to sell the Ayanda Capital masks came from a businessman called Andrew Mills, whose firm Prospermill had secured production from a factory in China and was able to offer a large quantity almost immediately.
According to the BBC, the legal document says Mills requested the government instead sign the contract with Ayanda Capital, whose board he advises, because it could arrange overseas payment more quickly.
Mills, who is also an adviser to the Department for International Trade’s Board of Trade, told the BBC his position played no part in the award of the contract.
Ayanda Capital Limited said in a statement: "The masks supplied went through a rigorous technical assurance programme and meet all the requirements of the technical specifications which were made available online through the government's portal.
"There are provisions in our contract for product to be rejected if it did not meet the required specification as per the contract. These provisions have not been activated."
But after Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves called for a NAO probe into the deal, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove confirmed it would take place.
He said: “I understand that the National Audit Office has already written to DHSC to inform the department of its wish to start such an investigation. The government looks forward to working closely with the NAO on this.
“Like you, I am keen that the government learns any relevant lesson from this exercise. While this procurement work was rightly done quickly and under great pressure, I believe the officials concerned balanced the urgent need for PPE with the requirement to obtain value for money. You asked me in April to 'give assurance that any UK company ready and willing to produce PPE to the right standard will not be overlooked'. It is clear that this government’s outstanding efforts, at a time of unprecedented challenge, delivered on this.”
Reeves said that the government had “failed in their duty to fully protect those working on the frontline during those crucial early months of this pandemic”.
She added: “It is astounding that ministers allowed the national PPE stockpile to run down and then spent millions with an offshore finance company with no history of providing vital equipment for the NHS.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said they were not able to comment on the individual PPE contract due to the ongoing legal proceedings.
But a government statement said: "Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the frontline.
"Over 2.4 billion items have been delivered, and more than 30 billion 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."
The Welsh Government meanwhile distanced itself from the England-only contract.
A spokesperson said: “We have not had a contract with Ayanda Capital to supply NHS Wales and the FFP2 mask, referenced in the HSE alert, is not part of the core range of PPE in Wales.
“All products sourced during the pandemic were subject to the required regulatory standards and checks were undertaken on all products to ensure such compliance.
"Any PPE products sourced which did not meet the required standards were not considered for purchase and rejected at the assessment/triage stage.”