Covid contracts: PPE fixer who was Tory donor named in admin error

Are you keeping up with all this? – Owl

The role of a former Tory parliamentary candidate and party donor in a £100m government deal to buy PPE has been revealed after an apparent admin error.

By Phil Kemp www.bbc.co.uk 

The deal for face masks was signed in July, but the names of those involved were blacked out when the contract was finally published seven months later.

A second document listed Samir Jassal, an ex-councillor who has campaigned with the PM, as the supplier’s contact.

The government has said ministers have no part in deciding who gets contracts.

But it is the latest in a series of revelations about PPE deals awarded to those with government connections.

A ‘good friend’

Although the deal, for protective masks for hospital workers, was signed last year, the details only came to light in March after a court rebuked the government for failing to publish contracts within the legal time frame. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was found to have acted unlawfully for this failure.

Even when the deal involving Mr Jassal was finally published, the contact details for the supplier were blacked out. Full contracts are routinely redacted when published by the government.

However, in what appears to have been a clerical error, a separate document published with the contract gives Mr Jassal’s name. He is listed as the “supplier’s contact” to Pharmaceuticals Direct Limited, the company paid to supply the masks.

He told the BBC he was a consultant for the firm.

Contracts with redacted element and contact details highlighted

Contact details on the contract (top) were blacked out, but Mr Jassal was listed as the “supplier’s contact” on a separate document (below)

The contract was negotiated in the aftermath of the first coronavirus wave in the UK.

At the time, with a rising global demand for PPE, the government directly awarded contracts under emergency terms, which meant it didn’t have to spend time following the usual tendering process.

However, this has led to concerns over why particular suppliers were chosen and accusations of favouring firms with political connections to the Conservative Party.

Who is Samir Jassal?

Mr Jassal, a former Conservative Party councillor, appears well connected to the government.

He joined the prime minister on an official trip to a recycling plant in west London last October, and accompanied him on a campaign visit to a Sikh temple during the 2019 general election campaign.

Mr Jassal himself stood as a Conservative candidate in two general elections and he is standing as a councillor again in Gravesham Borough Council in next month’s local elections.

His LinkedIn profile claims he worked as an adviser to the now Home Secretary Priti Patel between 2014 and 2015. The BBC understands this was unpaid. He describes her as a “good friend” on social media. In 2016, he donated £4,000 to the party.

At the height of the UK pandemic in 2020, the government set up a “high-priority lane” for businesses endorsed by Whitehall officials or politicians, to fast-track PPE orders. Ministers have refused to reveal the full list of firms that went through this fast lane.

In November, the spending watchdog found these companies were 10 times more likely to win contracts than suppliers that came through the normal route.

Mr Jassal’s involvement in the £100m face masks contract was uncovered by the Good Law Project, a campaign group which took the government to court over not publishing PPE contracts. It is now seeking to bring a case against the government in relation to this contract.

“It’s of profound public importance that we discover who has benefited from the special arrangements put in place, who has benefited from the billions of public money spent, and at whose direction,” Gemma Abbott, the group’s legal director told the BBC.

More on our PPE investigation

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) declined to answer whether Pharmaceutical Direct Limited’s (PDL) contract was processed as part of the high-priority lane.

Mr Jassal says PDL has 20 years’ experience in the healthcare sector and it asked to supply PPE via an online government portal. The company, he said, had supplied PPE to various outlets for many years.

Despite costing more than £100m, at least two hospital trusts have reported issues with the fit of the model of masks supplied under the contract

PPE orders in pandemic

  • £12.3bnvalue of PPE contracts awarded by UK govt between March and July 2020

Source: NAO Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nov 2020

Mr Jassal said the masks “successfully entered the NHS supply chain in a timely manner” and they met “all technical standards which were rigorously vetted and approved by the Health and Safety Executive, the DHSC and the NHS”.

PDL said it had engaged its own independent expert consultants to test and certify that all masks were fully compliant. It said, to the best of its knowledge, all masks supplied had been distributed to, and put to use by the NHS.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The first duty of any government in a national crisis is to protect the public and save lives, and to do that when confronted with this global pandemic we had to rapidly procure and produce PPE.

“This involved setting up a new logistics network from scratch and expanding our PPE supply chain from 226 NHS Trusts in England to more than 58,000 different settings, all of which was taking place at a time when global demand was greater than ever before.

“All PPE procurement went through the same assurance process. Due diligence has been carried out on every contract and Ministers have no involvement in deciding who is awarded contracts.”

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