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Exclusive: Government paid British Airways and Virgin £123 million to import PPE

Unions slam government for failing to repurpose factories in Britain to make gowns, face shields and masks

by Lamiat Sabin
Parliamentary Reporter

BRITAIN’S two biggest airlines have been paid more than £123 million to import personal protection equipment (PPE) from China during the pandemic, the Morning Star can reveal.

Contracts show that the Department for Health & Social Care (DHSC) spent almost £68m on British Airways Boeing 787 flights and more than £55m on Virgin flights since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The revelation has intensified trade-union calls for the government to form a strategy to build a strong domestic manufacturing base to make PPE, vaccine vials, and support the creation of more jobs.

The money spent on flights from Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen equates to almost £14m a month, in addition to the billions of pounds spent on buying the PPE.

BA was awarded 20 contracts between April and December, while Virgin was awarded 18, according to documents seen by the Star.

The largest contract was with BA for £13,738,738, signed on May 12, but the redacted papers do not show how many flights it is for.

The DHSC states in a note alongside the contracts that air cargo was preferable amid the urgent need for PPE, as sea freight takes up to 84 days. It also says that air freight saw a “dramatic cost inflation” due to lack of cargo capacity as a result of grounded passenger flights.

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner told the Star that the amount spent on flights is the “tip of the iceberg”  —and symptomatic of outsourcing and lack of foresight baked into public-procurement processes.

Britain should not be reliant on private and overseas companies during a severe health crisis, he warned, while also pointing out the environmental impacts of air and sea freight.

He said that successive Tory governments have operated on a “just in time” basis — supplies being bought when needed — with the view of cutting costs.

Mr Turner said British factories, with the appropriate tools and materials, should have been asked en masse to repurpose their operations to make gowns, face shields and masks during the pandemic.

The procurement issue also extends to the availability of borosilicate glass, no longer made in Britain, which is needed to make vials to store the Covid-19 vaccines, Mr Turner said.

In November, he wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to demand that urgent measures be taken to secure a sovereign capability to manufacture the glass domestically.

Rachel Harrison said GMB had demanded that government mobilise to quickly produce PPE in Britain. The union’s organiser slammed the government’s failure to do so as “borderline negligent.”

She told the Star: “Even now, with a new strain of Covid causing havoc in our communities, their unwillingness to develop a proper strategy is a ticking time bomb which could lead to an extended lockdown or even worse consequences.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic there has been a global demand for PPE, creating highly competitive markets. We have used the quickest and most accessible routes to procure essential PPE for our frontline workers.

“The Government did everything possible to secure PPE from abroad and get it to the places that needed it most as quickly as possible, including utilising air freight where possible.”


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