Coronavirus: Safety officials had 'political' pressure to approve PPE

By Phil Kemp
BBC News

Related Topics
Image source, Science Photo Library
Image caption,
The isolation suits supplied by PestFix were similar to those pictured here

Britain's safety watchdog felt leaned on by the government to make factually incorrect statements about PPE suits bought for NHS staff earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic, the BBC has found.

Emails reveal how the Health and Safety Executive said protective suits, bought by the government in April, had not been tested to the correct standard.

But the emails describe "political" pressure to approve them for use.

The government said all PPE is "quality assured" and only sent out if safe.

Early on in the pandemic, the NHS experienced severe shortages of personal protective equipment, known as PPE. As the country woke up to the lethal threat of Covid-19, there was a scramble to secure gloves, overalls and masks for NHS staff.

The shortage was so drastic that some hospital staff were even pictured at the time wearing bin bags.

Image caption,
Medics at a hospital in the Midlands don bin bags in place of PPE, in April 2020

The government had to find new suppliers quickly to meet demand and to compete with rising global competition. But that rush has prompted questions about its choice of provider.

One of those providers was small pest control firm Crisp Websites Ltd, trading as PestFix, which secured a contract in April with the Department of Health and Social Care for a £32m batch of isolation suits.

Three months after it was signed, the suits from PestFix had still not been released for use in the NHS, despite the rush to get PPE into hospitals. Instead, they were being stored at an NHS supply chain warehouse, in Daventry, waiting for safety assessments.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had concluded they had not been specified to the correct standard for use in hospitals when they were bought.

'Political' pressure

Separately, the contract was being challenged in the courts by campaign group the Good Law Project. It asked why DHSC had agreed to pay 75% upfront when the provider, it claimed, was "wholly unsuited" to deliver such a large and important order.

The contract had been awarded without being opened to competition because of the urgency of the crisis.

Now, emails from the HSE - given to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) - reveal how its officials came under pressure from government over the summer to release the suits to the NHS.

In June, one email from a firm working alongside the HSE describes "political pressure" being applied to get the suits through the quality assurance process.

By September, the legal wrangling was still going on, the emails show, even though the suits had, by then, been released to the NHS.

"We are being drawn into the legalities", one official wrote, saying they'd been asked to provide a statement that PestFix's products had had the right safety documents.

"I have been contacted by [name redacted] today requesting a statement to the effect that HSE were provided with the required documentation by Pestfix… This is not factually correct," the safety regulator wrote.

The following day, another email reveals: "…various colleagues in DHSC are contacting those involved in the assessment of the Pestfix products requesting statements to the effect that HSE assessed the products and they were compliant - not factually correct".

An email, dated 25 June, said Pestfix was worried news its equipment had not completed necessary testing might leak to the public.

"We are very concerned about whom we speak to with regard to getting these suits tested as we do not want it to be made public knowledge that PPE from Pestfix has not passed HSE inspection," it read.

The firm added that, with the legal challenge looming, it hoped that new tests could be done quickly. This was so that "we and the DHSC can confirm that the product… has been certified and accepted".

The isolation suits were ultimately tested to the required standard, and on 6 August the regulator allowed them to be used for staff treating Covid-19 in hospitals.

But it insisted the products were relabelled because the description was incorrect. The decision says: "The product refers to itself as an isolation gown, but it is clearly a disposable coverall".

Last month, the government published five more contracts it had signed with PestFix for gowns, gloves, masks and aprons totalling more than £300m.

A government spokesperson said: "We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect our health and social care staff throughout the pandemic, with more than 4.7 billion items delivered so far and 32 billion items ordered to provide a continuous supply to the frontline over the coming months.

"All PPE products are quality assured and only distributed if they are safe to use."

In a statement, PestFix said it had "delivered these products to DHSC on time and in compliance with the DHSC's specification and applicable regulations.

"After delivery, there was some delay while the product was re-categorised as a PPE product and further testing was carried out to confirm that the product was PPE compliant."

More from Phil on Twitter @phill_kemp

More on this story