Government Contracts: Covid-19 — [Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:39 pm on 21st June 2021.

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Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath 6:39 pm, 21st June 2021

I want to talk not just about contracts that have been awarded, but about contracts that have not—particularly contracts to UK manufacturers and the UK diagnostics sector. The Prime Minister repeatedly tells us he wants to build back better, to level up, to invest in global Britain and so on. However, with regard to lateral flow devices, the Government have signed an undisclosed contract, for an undisclosed sum of money, which I have been trying to get to the bottom of for some time, for Innova lateral flow test devices.

Back in November 2020, I was passed a copy of the test’s data sheet, of the type that comes with any medical device or product. It clearly states that these tests are unsuitable for asymptomatic subjects. In other words, we would be using them for a purpose for which they are neither designed nor licensed. I raised this with the deputy chief medical officer in a briefing on 17 November 2020, and I was assured that they had gone through validation. I was also promised a copy of the information that supported that validation, but it never arrived.

Later that month, in front of the Select Committee, I asked the Secretary of State about his media appearances in the weekend prior to that where he announced the use of lateral flow devices as being almost 100%—“99.6%”—accurate. I asked him about that because there were growing bodies of evidence and opinions in The British Medical Journal—not some rag that was subject to speculation—that these tests were unsuitable for the purposes for which they were about to be employed. I was seriously concerned because there was a possibility that not only would a false positive be incorrect, but a false negative would be incorrect. In-field data suggested that this could be as low as 50%. In other words, the test result was effectively the flip of a coin. It was no more or no less certain than that.

Over time, I have continued to explore this and have tried to hold the Secretary of State to account on this matter. I would reflect on one comment that was made in The BMJ at that time, which was that the Government’s approach to covid testing was an

“unevaluated, under designed and costly mess”.

The Secretary of State’s response to that was that his

“assessment of that description is that it is wrong.”

Fast forward to June this year, and the Food and Drug Administration of the United States—again, not some fly-by-night outfit—said that the covid test kits used in Britain fall under

Class 1: A situation in which there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a violative product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.”

The example I used with my staff to try and explain to them why I was so interested in this was quite simple. Using these tests as a gatekeeper for someone who then has a false negative to be allowed into a care home to visit a relative, allows that person, who may be asymptomatic and whose viral shedding it would be difficult to know about, to be among the most vulnerable people.

Accompanying that decision was footage, shown on the BBC, of a relative hugging and kissing their elderly parent in the day room of a care home full of other vulnerable people. I know the Government have tried to be as optimistic as possible throughout this pandemic, and in some respects I congratulate them on that, because it is important to lift the mood of the population at a difficult time. However, it is simply unacceptable to say that something provides reassurance when that is simply not the case.

I could go on to give various other examples, but this was no surprise to the Secretary of State or the chief medical officer. These points were raised repeatedly in the Select Committee. I raised them directly with the chief medical officer. I asked about the concerns, and he admitted that he was an expert in the use of lateral flow devices, but—this relates back to the point that I have just made—he also said:

“If what they are used for is to reduce risk, lateral flow tests have a very substantial benefit. If, on the other hand, they are used to increase risk, so that people start doing in a very risky way things they otherwise would not have done”— such as going to a care home to visit a relative—

“it becomes a lot more complicated.”

In other words, the tests become quite deadly.

I could give lots of examples, but I have hit as many of the targets as I really want to. However, there are serious issues here, because there are UK providers that have been touted—not by the markets, but by Lord Bethell himself—as being in line for contracts and that are now, again, waiting for those contracts to be honoured. The Minister has announced today that those contracts will now be given to another Chinese provider, Orient Gene. There is something wrong. If the Government truly want to level up the country and expand global Britain, how can it be that Chinese providers of tests that the FDA says are deadly are continuing to be offered contracts, while UK providers are going empty-handed? There are a series of serious questions that need to be answered, and they need to be answered by the Government soon.

Why have the public been led to believe that the tests are reliable, when there have been serious doubts about their usefulness since at least November 2020? Why are the tests repackaged in the NHS branding, and what are the legal implications? Is the NHS taking ownership as the manufacturer? Why has the UK continued for a further two months to use tests that are deemed dangerous by the FDA? Why has there been an extension to the exceptional usage agreement, when we know they are deadly? It is absolutely crazy. Why are UK manufacturers of perfectly useful tests being sidelined for worthless tests?

I would also like to know when the contracts for the tests were signed. Were they signed before the Government knew that they were not licensed for the purpose for which they were going to be used? Who was the Minister who authorised that? These are very serious questions, and I would underline a point that was made by an earlier speaker: an anti-corruption tsar needs to be appointed. Someone needs to come in and have a very hard look at the Government’s action on contracting throughout this pandemic—not just at what has been awarded, but at what has not been awarded.