Liz Truss urged to explain what she knew about government contract with adviser for 50 million unusable face masks

International trade secretary Liz Truss

International trade secretary Liz Truss - Credit: PA

International trade secretary Liz Truss must confirm if she knew one of her advisers approached the government about a deal which resulted in purchasing 50 million unusable face masks, Labour has said.

In a letter to Truss, shadow international trade minister Bill Esterson has demanded to know whether trade adviser Andrew Mills discussed a deal regarding the masks, which were supplied to the UK government in April but cannot be used in the NHS because of safety concerns.

The masks were bought for NHS England from Ayanda Capital as part of a £252 million contract, but the government says because they use ear-loop fastenings rather than head loops, they may not fit tightly enough for clinical use.

The government disclosed in court papers that the original approach for the PPE contract came from a businessman called Andrew Mills who was a director at a company called Prospermill, which said it had secured exclusive rights to the full production capacity of a large factory in China and could offer a large quantity of masks almost immediately.

The legal document revealed Mills requested DHSC's contractual counterparty should be Ayanda rather than Prospermill, because Ayanda already had an established international banking infrastructure that could be used for the necessary payments overseas, whereas Prospermill's own bank had indicated it could take some time to set this up on its own account.

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The government also said in court papers that Mills is an adviser to the UK Board of Trade and a senior board adviser at Ayanda.

Mills told the BBC his position with the trade board played no part in the awarding of the contract.

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The government has confirmed in court papers that the masks, which are now in the Department of Health and Social Care's (DHSC) logistic chain, will not be used in the NHS.

The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor, which are suing the government over its Ayanda contract, estimate the 50 million masks would have cost more than £150 million.

Boris Johnson told reporters: 'I'm very disappointed that any consignment of PPE should turn out not to be fit for purpose' - but would not comment further due to legal proceedings.

In his letter to Truss, Labour's Esterson says he is 'very concerned' about the matter and asks whether Mills is still a member of the UK Board of Trade.

'At a time when safe PPE is so necessary for frontline health and care workers but money is so scarce, it is extremely worrying that the government should waste money purchasing unsuitable equipment which cannot be put to use in the fight against Covid-19,' Esterson said.

Court papers show the government awarded the £252.5 million contract to Ayanda on April 29, with £41.25 million payable on commencement to secure the manufacturing capacity.

Ayanda Capital also supplied 150 million masks of another type, which the government says are unaffected but will be subject to further testing in the UK before any are released for use in the NHS.

Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: 'Good Law Project wrote to government on three contracts each worth over a hundred million pounds – with respectively a pest control company, a confectioner and a family hedge fund.

'Each of those contracts has revealed real cause for alarm – including, on Ayanda, that around £150 million was spent on unusable masks. What other failures remain undiscovered?'

A government spokesman said: 'Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the front line.

'Over 2.4 billion items have been delivered and more than 30 billion have been ordered from UK-based manufacturers and international partners to provide a continuous supply, which meets the needs of health and social care staff both now and in the future.

'There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with the necessary due diligence undertaken on all government contracts.'

Tim Horlick, chief executive of Ayanda Capital, insists the masks are not unsafe or unusable, adding that none of his company's products have ever been rejected by the DHSC for any reason.

'The masks met all government specifications and standards, the masks are not unusable or unsafe and the government has not wasted any money in purchasing these masks,' Horlick told the PA News Agency.

He said his company had supplied the DHSC with the masks they requested, approved and ordered, adding that it may be that the internal NHS requirements changed because of the fast-moving situation at the time.

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