Britain's government revealed on Thursday that 50 million face masks it has ordered to equip the National Health Service (NHS) as it battles the pandemic will not be used because of safety concerns.
The announcement comes after the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor launched legal proceedings against the government over the awarding of a $252 million (€280 million) contract for the supply of face masks to Ayanda Capital, a family-owned fund specialising in currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing.
According to the two organisations, the contract is the largest issued by the UK government to date for the supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). They revealed that the deal was arranged by Andrew Mills, an adviser for the Department of International Trade who also advises Ayanda Capital.
The 50 million FFP2 masks delivered by Ayanda Capital were pulled because they have ear loops instead of head loops, which are not deemed secure enough for medical personnel.
Ayanda Capital CEO Tim Horlick told Euronews in a statement that "the masks met all government specifications and standards, the masks are not unusable or unsafe and the government has not wasted any money in purchasing these masks".
The company also told lawyers for the Good Law Project that "from the onset our client [the government] only ever proposed FFP2 masks with ear-loops" and that it "did not specifically request any other versions".
The money spent by the government on these masks is estimated by the Good Law Project at between £156 million - £177 million (€173 million - €196 million).
"So unless Government finds another use for, or seeks to sell, those unsuitable masks, that money has been wasted," the Good Law Project said in a statement.
The government told the two organisations that another 150 million masks delivered by Ayanda Capital are "unaffected" but that "further testing will be carried out" before they are released to the NHS.
The legal proceedings launched last week by the two NGOs also look at the awarding of PPE contracts to a pest controller and a confectioner — worth over £100 million (€111 million each).
Julia Patterson, founder of EveryDoctor said: "It is horrifying that during the worst crisis in the NHS's history, the government entrusted large sums of public money in the hands of companies with no experience in procuring safe PPE for healthcare workers."
A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Sciences said in a statement that "there is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with all due diligence undertaken on all government contracts".
The main opposition Labour party has called for the National Audit Office — the government's spending watchdog — to investigate the alleged "mishandling of PPE contracts".
"It is astounding that ministers allowed the national PPE stockpile to run down and then spent millions with an offshore finance company with no history of providing vital equipment for the NHS," it added.
The UK has been badly hit by the global pandemic and is the most severely-impacted country in Europe. More than 46,200 people have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the country since the beginning of the outbreak and a further 307,000 are known to have contracted the disease, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.