There was an unhappy reminder of the pandemic and the PPE Bad Buying saga recently when several hundred pallets of PPE (mainly aprons, it seems) were discovered apparently dumped in Calmore, near Testwood Lakes Nature Reserve in the New Forest (near to Southampton). No-one knows how it got there…
Some of the material involved was identified as coming from a supplier caller Full Support Group (FSG). Now there is an interesting story about that firm. It was relatively late in the PPE saga when it became public that it was in fact the largest single supplier of PPE in the UK into the health system, with estimates that close to £2 billion had gone to FSG to buy huge quantities of PPE. It was not immediately apparent though because the firm was already a major supplier to the NHS pre-Covid, so the pandemic purchases were made using existing framework contracts, which did not show up on registers of new contracts. (That’s a weakness of the transparency rules by the way, but let’s save that for another day).
I had some personal communications with the founder and CEO of the firm, ex-nurse Sarah Stoute, and I’m still not really clear whether FSG and its leaders are amongst the heroes of the pandemic or the villains. In terms of heroes, the owners took huge risks when they saw the pandemic starting, and committed to buy PPE mainly from China at their own risk in late 2019 and early 2020 as prices started rising. That could have literally bankrupted the firm if the market had moved the wrong way but those stocks helped the NHS get through the crisis – and of course prices went up and up, benefiting the firm’s bottom line.
The owners also tried to advise the NHS and the PPE buyers about the suitability or otherwise of some of the new sources of PPE that started coming on board. Now that might be seen as self-serving – “buy from us rather than these unsuitable new suppliers”. But Stoute was proved right on some occasions where (as we now know) the government bought PPE that was unsuitable or didn’t meet specifications – or was bought from firms that turned out to be run by crooks, basically.
The counter argument basically runs that the owners made huge profits as shortages grew and bought themselves a Caribbean villa for £30 million, an equestrian centre and a country mansion in the south of England for £6 million. As I say, they took substantial risks, but maybe buying villas wasn’t the most tactful thing to do quite so quickly. I think I might have waited a couple of years at least!
But back to this dumping of stock. Clearly that was nothing to do with FSG or with the NHS or individual NHS trusts. However, we do know that the NHS some time ago appointed firms to help with disposal of unwanted PPE, most of which was sitting in shipping containers around the country (some was still being held by suppliers to).
So the most likely explanation is that someone was contracted to dispose of PPE, they probably then passed on the task to another firm, and maybe another one again, util it ended up with a bunch of criminals who offered a cheap price for disposal then simply dumped it.
Sara Stoute has also said that the reason this stock is surplus is that it wasn’t stored correctly – their lawyer said, “the PPE became unusable because of the way it was stored after delivery, not due to wrongdoing on their part”. If that is true, that is another indictment around the whole story of mismanagement we’ve seen unfortunately from the beginning of this saga. As well as the money (and time) wasted, the disposal issue highlights the “wasted” carbon emissions embedded in the product and now the pollution and waste disposal risks and costs around it. Not a happy tale, all in all.