The NHS was deprived of large amounts of protective gear at the height of the coronavirus outbreak after a French company contracted to supply millions of masks allegedly prioritised more lucrative deals with deep-pocketed clients including a Chinese state-owned energy company, reports The Guardian in a joint investigation with Mediapart.
The joint investigation by The Guardian and Mediapart has uncovered evidence suggesting the mask manufacturer Valmy failed to fulfil the terms of a £1.2m contract with the NHS to supply about 7m masks in the event of a pandemic.
According to the contract, Valmy was required to respond rapidly to the NHS order and begin deliveries within weeks.
However, documents seen by The Guardian and Mediapart suggest that rather than prioritising the NHS the company increased production for other customers as mask prices soared. A person familiar with Valmy’s negotiations with the NHS said it waited “quite a long time before responding to the NHS’s request because they could sell at far better prices on other markets”.
The disclosures raise questions about the UK government’s reliance on “just in time” logistics to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) in a pandemic situation. The arrangements, common in the manufacturing and retail sectors, were introduced in 2017 to reduce the cost of maintaining a large PPE stockpile.
According to two senior NHS procurement officials, “just in time” PPE contracts encountered significant difficulties in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak. Amid a surge in global demand for PPE, the guarantees to supply the NHS were at the mercy of chaotic international supply chains, ruthless market practices and protectionism.
“All of the comfort blankets we thought we had basically went up in flames,” one of the officials said.
Valmy’s contract with the NHS was dealt a further blow in early March when the French government issued a decree requisitioning stocks of respirator masks. Valmy is understood to be under investigation in France in connection with alleged violations of the decree.
Read the Mediapart version in French here.