Coronavirus: Stormont to place £170m Chinese order for PPE

By David Thompson
BBC Nolan Show

  • Published
PPE at workImage source, Getty Images

Stormont's health and finance departments intend to place a £170m order for personal protective equipment (PPE).

Funds have been set aside for a £60m deposit with a Chinese state firm.

But leaked documents, seen by the Nolan Show, reveal concerns that goods from China may not be of high enough quality.

There are also concerns over the danger of being in competition with NI's main supply route via the UK government.

The funds were originally set aside for a failed order with Dublin, but instead were allocated to a new supply route identified by Northern Ireland officials in China.

The Department of Health has said "prospective PPE supply routes from China for Northern Ireland have not been finalised".

'High-risk strategy'

Items on the order, which is to be placed on Tuesday, include 28.8 million facemasks, 12 million respirator masks and 28 million in each aprons and visors.

On 3 April, Northern Ireland Bureau director in China, Tim Losty, wrote to officials in finance and health, telling them that a company in China could "supply everything on your list".

On Monday, senior Department of Health official Sharon Gallagher warned Health Minister Robin Swann that an order from China would "always have been a high-risk strategy" as it was testing a new route, with most money paid upfront and a short time to be assured on quality.

The official also warned they had spoken to the Department of Finance and they believed "our confidence levels on the proposed supply route have diminished whilst the risk assessment has increased".

Ms Gallagher's view was that the original China order was placed in a different climate when there was "a very negative outlook on supply from other routes including DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care in London) and the apparent success of Dublin in securing stock from China".

The documents - including an email sent on Monday - show she believed assurances from the UK government were now "key".

In a statement, the Department of Health said: "It is entirely right for officials to scrutinise and test any such proposals, stressing the need for due diligence and emphasising that any procurement must be compatible with NHS four nations arrangements."

In March, the Irish government received a PPE order from China, which was referred to in the leaked documents.

Ms Gallagher warned the health minister "the quality received in Dublin was not as understood and rendered 35% of stock unusable".

She added: "They are unclear on when and what we [sic] be received from the rest of their order."

Image caption,
Robin Swann said Northern Ireland had "sufficient" PPE after a consignment arrived on Monday

The Nolan Show understands the departments of finance and health have worked together on the latest order, but it is not yet clear whether it has been endorsed by the whole executive.

On Thursday afternoon, the programme asked the Department of Health and Social Care in London if they were aware of the separate arrangement pursued by the Stormont ministers.

The department responded by restating that Health Minister Matt Hancock had agreed last week for the department to provide "more PPE to Northern Ireland to meet their needs, over five million items including goggles, aprons and masks".

The Department of Health in Belfast said it has "ensured that the Department of Health and Social Care in London is apprised of the proposed supply route" in ongoing communications.

It added: "We are working very hard to build up our PPE stockpiles for the post-surge period and expected second surge.

"We have repeatedly said we will aggressively pursue all feasible supply routes, internationally and locally."

Health Minister Robin Swann has previously said his department was working with Mr Murphy's officials to secure as much equipment as possible.