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Government spent £252m on 50 million face masks ‘not fit for purpose’

Image credit: Jonathan Borba | Unsplash

Fifty million face masks bought by the UK Government as part of a £252m contract will now not be used in the NHS due to safety concerns.

The Government has confirmed in court papers that the masks, which are now in the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) logistic chain, will not be used in the NHS.

The masks, ordered from Ayanda Capital, have ear loops rather than head loops and there are concerns over whether they offer adequate protection.

The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor, which are suing the Government over its Ayanda contract, estimate the 50 million masks would have cost more than £150m.

Labour has called for an inquiry into the contract, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters: “I’m very disappointed that any consignment of PPE should turn out not to be fit for purpose.” He added that with legal proceedings currently underway, he would not be drawn on further details about this specific case.

Court papers show the Government awarded the £252.5m contract to Ayanda on 29 April 2020, with £41.25m payable on commencement to secure the manufacturing capacity.

Ayanda Capital also supplied 150 million masks of another type, which the Government said are unaffected but will be subject to further testing in the UK before any are released for use in the NHS.

The Government also disclosed in court papers that the original approach to sell the masks came from a businessman called Andrew Mills, director at a firm called Prospermill, which had secured exclusive rights to the full production capacity of a large factory in China to produce masks and offer a large quantity almost immediately.

The legal document revealed Mills requested that DHSC’s contractual counterparty should be Ayanda rather than Prospermill, as Ayanda already had an established international banking infrastructure that could be used to effect the necessary payments overseas, whereas Prospermill’s own bank had indicated it could take some time to set this up on its own account.

The court papers also revealed that Mills is both an adviser to the UK Board of Trade and a senior board adviser at Ayanda. He told the BBC that his position played no part in the award of the contract.

Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: “Good Law Project wrote to Government on three contracts each worth over a hundred million pounds – 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?”

Julia Patterson, 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.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for an inquiry into the failings. “For months we were told that the Government was purchasing the right equipment for the front line. Yet again it hasn’t happened,” Starmer told reporters during a visit to north Wales.

“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.”

A Government spokesman said: “Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the front line.

“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.”

Tim Horlick, CEO of Ayanda Capital, has insisted the masks are not unsafe or unusable, adding that none of his company’s products have ever been rejected by DHSC for any reason: “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.”

On its website, Ayanda Capital describes itself as “a family office focused on a broad investment strategy”, adding, “We focus on currency trading, offshore property, and private equity and trade financing.”

The coronavirus pandemic has caused an explosion in demand for PPE worldwide, not just from healthcare workers but also from the general public. This has put pressure on the existing stocks and future supplies of face masks of all kinds.

Last month, University of Cincinnati researchers demonstrated that two widely available sterilisation methods to clean disposable surgical masks and N95 respirators make them less effective.

Meanwhile, MIT researchers designed a new type of face mask that could address issues of reuse, with a model made from reusable silicone rubber that can be sterilised multiple times and should be able to stop viral particles as effectively as N95 masks.

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