Turkish officials and the company at the centre of the decision by the NHS to impound hundreds of thousands of protective gowns have claimed they are yet to receive a demand for a refund from the health service at the end of a day of confusion about an ill-fated order of 400,000 of the badly needed items of kit.
Their statements contradicted assurances made by Downing Street at lunchtime on Thursday that the UK was in negotiations to obtain refunds or replacements – and it gradually emerged that a majority of the gowns were still in process of being tested after some had failed UK safety standards.
An early evening clarification from the Department of Health made clear that 2,400 gowns from an initial batch of 67,000 that had arrived in the UK last month had failed safety tests – forcing officials to impound the majority of the rest so they could be properly tested.
Only 4,500 gowns were passed as fit for use in the health service – around 1% of the original order – while another 170,000 gowns were being held in Turkey so they could be tested there. The rest are yet to be delivered.
A government spokesman said: “While a small number of these gowns have failed tests in the UK, more have passed tests making them suitable for use in the NHS. The majority of items ordered from the private supplier are awaiting testing in the UK and Turkish warehouses.”
The late clarification came after nearly a day of uncorrected reports that all 400,000 gowns ordered were unfit for use, including statements made by a cabinet minister. It followed growing pressure from Turkey, which complained that ministers were allowing the wrong picture to be presented.
A Turkish diplomatic source told the Guardian that the country had been trying to establish what the problem was throughout Thursday and argued that concerns over the order had been overstated. “So far nobody approached us or claimed for anything from any company in Turkey,” the source added.
Three weeks ago, the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, promised that the gowns would arrive as part of an 84-tonne shipment at a time when NHS staff were warning there was only a few days-worth of protective equipment left.
But almost all the goods trumpeted by Jenrick have yet to be used in the NHS – the latest in a string of hasty NHS procurement decisions during the coronavirus crisis that also saw ministers buy 3.5m antibody tests that turned out not to work and 250 Chinese-supplied ventilators that were deemed to be dangerous.
In the wake of the Turkish situation, NHS bodies representing hospital trusts warned ministers against over-promising, said that it had a corrosive impact across the health service.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “This illustrates the danger of making promises on a wing and a prayer. We have warned repeatedly that setting big targets which are then not met and saying all will be well, when at the sharp end of care it is manifestly not, undermines confidence among clinical staff on the frontline.”
A deposit was paid by the NHS, and although the delivery was subject to days of delay, the shipment of 67,000 gowns eventually arrived in the UK over a fortnight ago after the consignment had been subject to a cursory check by British officials in Istanbul.
“Some of the boxes were opened and people on the ground took pictures of the gowns to check with the UK. After that they were flown to Britain where the plan was to use them in the NHS,” a Whitehall source added.
But on Thursday ministers said publicly that the gowns were useless for medical purposes after it emerged they had been impounded at Heathrow airport after the stock failed to meet required standards.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, said: “There was a view that it was good enough PPE. It is only when it has got here that teams have looked at it again and taken a view that it is not up to the right standard and theyve decided not to use it.”
Downing Street officials said subsequently that the NHS was now in negotiations to get new gowns sent, or it would ask for a refund from the supplier, a private Turkish manufacturer called Selegna, a company founded a few months ago initially to supply the fashion sector before switching to medical supplies as the coronavirus crisis broke out.
Selegna said it had had no contact with the NHS on Thursday – and insisted that no problems with the shipment had been mentioned earlier in the week when the company said it was in touch with NHS officials.
“The fabric of the aprons is certified. All products are certified. If there was a problem, they could do research and let us know,” Mehmet Düzen for Selegna told the BBC. They said they stood ready to rectify any problems.
Labour said it was the latest in a string of mistakes made by the government. “It is vital that the government produces a clear and credible plan for what comes next to avoid further serious missteps like this and ensure there is a secure and reliable supply of PPE moving forwards.”
Meanwhile Channel 4 reported that almost 80% of respirators in the national pandemic stockpile were out of date when coronavirus hit the UK. The broadcaster obtained stock lists that reveal exactly what was held on 30 January, the day coronavirus was declared an international emergency. Use-by dates on around 200m vital pieces of kit – including almost 21m respirators out of a total of 26.3m – had expired. It took several weeks, until the UK was already suffering a shortage of PPE, to test the expired respirators and they could be sent for use.