Over the holiday period, we heard a lot more about the case of Medpro, the firm that is being taken to court by the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care over the supply of PPE, gowns in particular, which allegedly turned out to be unfit for purpose. The beneficiaries of this, the high profile Michelle Mone, a member of the House of Lords, and her husband Doug Barrowman, produced a documentary arguing their side of the case, and gave an interview on the BBC. This came after the couple had originally denied publicly that Medpro was anything to do with them, with Mone lying to the press and then getting lawyers to issue threatening letters to various publications.
The general response to all this new self-generated publicity was not very favourable for the couple. The interview was called a “car crash” and was likened to the Duke of York’s famous “I was at Pizza Hut and I don’t sweat” interview with Emily Maitlis in 2019. There are some questions though which still need answering on the government’s side of the story.
- Why is this the only legal case that the government appears to be pursuing? There have definitely been other examples of quality issues, and cases of firms that look at least as dodgy as Medpro winning major PPE contracts. Is there a logic to this or has the government chosen to pursue Medpro because of Mone’s profile, know there would be more publicity given her involvement and that would show the authorities were taking action?
- Mone claims that she has an email from an official on the PPE team saying, “the gowns have been approved by technical”. But that seems to be pre-delivery so the approval was before anyone had seen the actual delivered product, which seems odd. Maybe there were samples? But the gowns were apparently inspected by Uniserve, the logistics provider appointed by the government, from July 2020 in China. And £122 million was paid out in the summer of 2020 for the gowns, which would usually suggest the buyer is content with what has been delivered.
- The government says that random testing in April 2022 found that 54 of the 60 randomly selected Medpro gowns weren’t sterile. But that is almost two years after delivery. Even if those tests were accurate, Medpro lawyers may argue that the gowns might have become unsterile in the intervening almost two years, perhaps because of sub-optimal storage conditions?
- As a buyer, if I have inspected the goods, told the supplier they meet my specification, and handed over the payment as per the contract, then it is pretty unusual, and very difficult to go back a year or two later and say, “hang on a minute, I’ve had another look and I don’t like that stuff I bought from you after all”. In my experience, the supplier would be likely either to laugh or (if they valued my business) say something vaguely sympathetic such as, “Peter, you said it was fine – you must appreciate we can’t really do anything at this stage, terribly sorry”.
However, the fact that Mone lied about her and Barrowman’s involvement and personal gains from the deal is a major issue working against them. There is also the question of alleged bribery. This has been part of the investigation, but there has been no hint as to who it was that Medpro might have bribed. Their political contacts? PPE procurement people? Other officials? Flows of money are usually relatively easy to check, unless it is literally £50 notes in a brown envelope, so that’s still an interesting unanswered question.
In any case, this is likely to be a big story through 2024, not least because Labour will emphasise “Tory sleaze” when it comes to the UK election. Labour has also promised to appoint a “covid corruption commissioner” to look into PPE contracts, so this story will no doubt run and run.