The Michelle Mone affair stinks. It shows that, under Boris Johnson, the British government was unfit for purpose, and is scarcely better today. While the Covid inquiry descends into a lawyers’ carnival, the PPE procurement scandal festers on.
In the spring of 2020, when the pandemic first broke, Wales’s first minister, Mark Drakeford, announced that there was “PPE in the system for everyone who needs it”. In the Welsh county of Gwynedd, hospitals, clinics, care homes and primary schools retorted that they had virtually none.
A group in the small town of Tywyn in the south of the county promptly took action. They raised money, bought and began operating 3D printers in a private house, and began turning out hundreds of masks. Within days these were being distributed to desperate health centres. It is what a proper community does in an emergency when government fails.
This group, of which I was a member, missed a trick. We failed to contact Lord Agnew, in Johnson’s Cabinet Office, to ask for a million pounds. Had we done so we could have built a warehouse in a matter of days and spared him the need to hire Lady Mone’s husband, Doug Barrowman. As it was, Agnew’s VIP fast lane enabled Barrowman to walk off with tens of millions of pounds in profit on more than £200m’s worth of useless Chinese equipment. Given what ordinary people were doing for nothing, this was obscene.
The Department for Health and Social Care spent £12bn on PPE during Covid, of which £4bn proved unusable. The government’s defence was that times were abnormal. It was an emergency and everyone was desperate. That is precisely when sound public administration clicks into a higher gear. Britain’s went awol. Parliament was silent. There appears to be no record of any permanent secretary raising an objection to an instruction to disburse money in this way. It was a complete, leaderless shambles.
Only intense pressure from the Guardian and others secured details of who the contractors were and where the money went. When the story started to emerge, the Mone family hired cohorts of lawyers and argued that that the contracts were nothing to do with them. Night after night we had to see clips of Mone smirking in a red cloak during her inexplicable admission to the House of Lords by David Cameron in 2016. Now she has admitted she lied to the media about her involvement in securing contracts for PPE Medpro. The minister Lord Callanan says perhaps Lady Mone should not return to the House of Lords.
We still do not know where this farrago stops. It turned out that Agnew had shares via a blind trust in a company whose job was to help firms secure government contracts. By 2022 even he had had enough. Laughably, the “minister for efficiency and transformation” resigned because nothing was being done to recover fraudulent “bounce back” loans made during lockdown. He accused his colleagues of “arrogance, indolence and ignorance”. The accusation stands.
These are not good times for Britain’s public service. Much that happened during the height of the Covid pandemic is for history, but blatant irresponsibility and fraud with taxpayers’ money cannot go unpunished. But there are also peers who must have known what was going on, and who did nothing.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist