Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:58 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade) 5:58 pm, 11th November 2020

In April, the Government asked businesses across our country to step up to help in the pandemic. I want to tell a story of two businesses that tried to help in that pandemic. It is a contrast between two PPE companies: Florence Roby, owned by constituents of mine in Formby; and PPE Medro, which was founded on 12 May this year. Seven weeks later, this company was given a contract for £122 million to provide medical robes. The contract was not advertised anywhere else, and presumably it was delivered, but we have no way of knowing because we have not had the outcomes yet.

How was Florence Roby doing by 12 May, having first approached the Government in March, before the big call for help came? It has been going for more than 50 years, and it is a specialist in the manufacture of uniforms. Working with local NHS providers, it designed medical robes that could be reused up to 100 times. It took two months for Florence Roby to get an answer, which took it past the 12 May date. Meanwhile, it developed the product and applied for the CE marks. In June, it was told that its product was not required. The Government’s email said that they had all the PPE they could possibly ever need. Florence Roby and dozens of other companies across the country were told the same thing: their services were no longer required.

Florence Roby had put weeks of effort and thousands of pounds of investment into developing a product, which, remember, was 100 times reusable; meanwhile, we were getting planeloads of plastic medical robes from Turkey that could not be used because the quality was not good enough. That is the reality of what my constituents faced. They still have not had a contract or a satisfactory answer from the Government. They were just given the runaround.

PPE Medpro is not the only company to have profited, having been started from scratch or having had very little footprint and no previous experience. We saw that, as Neale Hanvey mentioned, with PestFix and its £108 million contract. PPE Medpro had one advantage: it was assisted by its relationship with a Conservative Member of the House of Lords. Randox, similarly connected to Members of the ruling party, got a £347 million contract for covid tests that could not be used because of safety concerns. Ayanda Capital, which supplied unusable facemasks, is based in Mauritius, and we heard at Prime Minister’s questions from the Leader of the Opposition about £130 million for external PR. All the while, a £7,000 day rate is being paid to consultants more widely. Florence Roby employs local people and a contract would have added jobs in its factory; instead, it had to lay people off, while PPE Medpro shipped from overseas. That is the contrast.

Let us remember that we were told all the way through that there are unique circumstances about procurement during a crisis, and I do not deny that. On 11 April, there was a call to arms from the Health Secretary to any UK textile company that could assist. On 15 April, the Government’s website was calling for PPE manufacturers and home-grown industries. On 4 May, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster spoke of support for

“companies capable of contributing supplies.”—[Official Report, 4 May 2020;
Vol. 675, c. 411.]

All of those requests were made and answered by Florence Roby and a list of other companies, including EcoLogix in my constituency, Imperial Polythene Products in Slough and Staeger Clear Packaging, which makes aprons and other PPE, but they were turned down despite offering to help. It was a chance for British companies to contribute to the crisis, and it was a chance for taxpayers’ money to support businesses through the pandemic to help with jobs and the economy, but they were turned down. That is why the National Audit Office report and investigation is so important.