Recent public discussion of how the government organised PPE procurement at the beginning of the Covid pandemic – and particularly the concerns raised about PPE Medpro and the involvement of Baroness Mone in promoting it – has reminded us of our own experience during those months. A number of people came to us for help in navigating system; most of them were simply keen to do whatever they could to help and were not in the least focused on profit as their primary objective. In retrospect we now realise that without access to the “VIP lane” their offers were probably simply ignored, but it seems to us that there is more to be learnt from those times than the simple lesson that without protexia all is in vain.
We have a lot of sympathy for the individual politicians and civil servants who suddenly found themselves dealing with a pandemic that the country was not prepared for under the chaotic leadership that was the Johnson administration. The instinct in an emergency to call a friend and see who can help is understandable, if not entirely professional. But the way in which the health system behaved is symptomatic, we believe, of some fundamental errors in self-perception that extend beyond the confines of the pandemic scenario.
The NHS is used to thinking big – and rightly so. But there are times when being big is a disadvantage, and this was one of them. Normally, size and purchasing mean that the NHS can dictate price – in the pandemic, when the entire world was chasing the same goods, it could be dictated to by large suppliers. So the manufacturers and the middlemen saw opportunity when the UK came to call.
We had a client who had people on the ground in Turkey who were familiar with SME manufacturers and could verify for our client exactly what was going on the factories. These SMEs needed the business and could produce supplies not for the whole country but, say, for a few NHS trusts each. A few of these SMEs together could have supplied a significant amount of PPE and hand sanitiser at high quality and reasonable price. But the system was effectively closed to small suppliers – so the government bought at inflated prices and often with inadequate quality checks.
The quality problem was exacerbated by the middlemen rushing in without bothering to understand or treat seriously the detailed specifications for PPE, and failing to check documentation or to send competent people to inspect factories. The lesson? Even in pandemic panic, government needs to think about how best to act in current market conditions, to pay attention to the motivation and competence of its would-be suppliers, and above all always to allow assumptions to be questioned. In the next post of this series we’ll look at a particular instance of the danger created by the refusal to question.