Wednesday 1 July 2020 8:35 pm

Government: Firm’s £108m PPE contract issued ‘in error’

The government has backtracked on official documents showing that it awarded a family-run firm £108m to procure personal protective equipment (PPE), saying it reported the sum “in error”.

The Department for Health last month published documents that showed it secured a deal worth £108m in April with Crisp Websites Ltd — a pest control firm trading under the name of Pestfix — which has 16 staff and net assets of just over £18,000. 

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The government handed out more than £350m worth of PPE contracts to private companies in April, as the UK scrambled to find sufficient levels of protective equipment for the NHS. The £108m figure meant the deal with Pestfix represented almost a third of the government’s total PPE procurement funding.

However, the government has now said the £108m figure was incorrect, following legal proceedings from non-profit organisation the Good Law Project.

The Good Law Project claimed the contract was awarded without a competitive tender process and to a company that had no prior expertise in producing PPE. 

In a letter to the Good Law Project, the government said it reported the details of the contract “in error”, and that the Pestfix PPE contract was actually worth £32m. 

“It has come to light that the contract award notice published… on 18 May was issued in error, and a new notice with the correct details will be issued shortly”, the letter read. 

However, the government added that the £32m contract was one of “a number” of PPE contracts awarded to Pestfix — the details of which are yet to be disclosed.

“For completeness, we should add that a number of further contracts have also been agreed with the interested party, full details of which will be published in the coming weeks,” the letter said.

Official government documents stated that the Pestfix contract would encompass the “delivery and supply of urgently needed gloves, gowns and masks”.

But the government has now said this is incorrect, and “rather than a contract for gloves, masks and isolation suits for £108m as indicated, the contract that was concluded with [Pestfix]… was in fact for isolation suits only, with a value of £32m instead.”

Pestfix currently offers 22 different PPE products on its website, including goggles, face shields and plastic gloves. It also sells a Stay Alert Steri Kit, which includes hand sanitiser, surgical masks and sterilised wipes, for £83.99.

Dan England, the co-founder of the business, told the Times that although the company had not previously sold PPE, he had “very good connections in the supply chain” in the far East and had “tried to help the NHS in their hour of need”.

The government also disputed the Good Law Project’s suggestion that the contract had been awarded without being properly publicly advertised. All central government procurement opportunities worth more than £10,000 must be published on the government’s Contract Finder page in a legal tender process. 

A Treasury spokesman said that the government received “around 16,000 offers from suppliers” in response to a national call to arms for PPE on 18 May.

However, documents showed that the £108m purchase order issued by the government was made on 10 April — three days before the tender process for the contract was supposed to conclude on 13 April.

Jolyon Maugham, founder and director of the Good Law Project said: “The government’s bizarre response to judicial review proceedings throws up more questions than answers.”

“How many other contracts have been awarded to Pestfix? How much are those contracts worth? Why do they claim they advertised the original contract in question, after the contract was already awarded?” 

He added: “What we can be absolutely clear about is that huge sums of public money have gone to a tiny company with no expertise in the area.” 

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“It’s difficult to imagine how any of this would have come to light had we not sued. We will keep pushing until we have all the answers.”

The Department for Health and Social Care said: “[We] cannot comment on ongoing legal matters”.

A spokesperson for Pestfix said: “Pestfix is a public health supply SME that has been procuring and supplying PPE — among other items for use in pest control — for more
than a decade, to a range of sectors, including many NHS Foundation Trusts.”

“Our small, dedicated global team, spanning three continents, has worked
non-stop for the past three months to support efforts of
getting PPE to the frontline involving an ongoing and herculean
logistics operation.

“We are proud to say we have already delivered tens of tens of millions
of medical-grade PPE items to the NHS as part of this contract and are
well on track to complete the order on schedule.”

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