Drivers tell of chaos at UK's privately run PPE stockpile

Allegations raise questions over Movianto’s management of government stocks during coronavirus outbreak

The private firm contracted to run the government’s stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) was beset by “chaos” at its warehouse that may have resulted in delays in deploying vital supplies to healthcare workers, according to sources who have spoken to the Guardian and ITV News.

The allegations from delivery drivers and other well–placed sources raise questions about whether Movianto, the subsidiary of a US healthcare giant, was able to adequately manage and distribute the nation’s emergency stockpile of PPE for use in a pandemic.

The investigation by the Guardian and ITV News also established that in previous years Movianto temporarily stored the emergency pandemic equipment in a smoke-damaged warehouse that was found to contain asbestos.

The stockpile was later relocated to a giant, purpose-built warehouse elsewhere in Merseyside, where it was being held when the government realised that supplies were urgently needed to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak.

However, in late March, after the company was ordered to begin distributing PPE and amid complaints of dire shortages in hospitals, the British army had to be scrambled to Movianto’s warehouse to help organise and deploy the PPE.

According to delivery drivers responsible for delivering PPE to hospitals that month, Movianto was not ready to get the deliveries out to hospitals as demand for PPE rose, owing to “bad management” of the stock and short-staffing at the warehouse.

“It became more chaotic as time went on,” said Asif Hussain, a former policeman who was one of the drivers working at the warehouse in March. “Vans weren’t loaded, so you’d wait around for several hours for the vans to be loaded and sometimes they’d give you the wrong equipment to deliver to the hospitals.”

“Nobody knew what they were doing,” said another driver, Ian Rawson, brought in to deliver medical supplies in March. “If this was so urgent to get out, why did they not send more people to get the stuff ready for us?”

A senior NHS procurement official said they understood that upon arrival at the Movianto facility the army was confronted with a chaotic situation and had to reorganise the stock. “They had to unwrap it all and break it down into digestible chunks and start shipping it out on army trucks to hospitals.”

A spokesman for Movianto said the military deployment was “not because of any shortcomings in Movianto’s performance”, insisting the company had “executed the agreed plan” to mobilise the stockpile without any delay and in accordance with its contractual obligations.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said: “The pandemic influenza stockpile has always been readily deployable and it is entirely false to claim otherwise. There has been no damage to any of the stockpile and it has been safely and securely stored at all times.”

The department has repeatedly said the UK was “one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemics”.

The health minister Edward Argar declined to comment on Movianto’s handling of the contract, but stressed in an interview with ITV News that the Covid-19 outbreak massively increased demand on the supply chain.

“When we see the scale of the challenge and when we address that as we have done, you have to put in place additional measures to make sure that the PPE gets to where it’s needed,” he said. “And I have to say that the military have done a fantastic job for this country, as they always do.”

At the time that the army was deployed to Movianto’s warehouse, the NHS was facing widespread PPE shortages as hospitals turned to schools for donations of science goggles while some NHS staff made improvised masks out of snorkels and bought kit from hardware stores.

Last month the Guardian revealed that Movianto was sold to a French company in the midst of the pandemic, after a turbulent 18 months that included legal disputes with its landlord. Both Movianto and the DHSC say the legal disputes and the sale of the firm had no impact on its storage or distribution of PPE.

The Guardian is investigating how the UK government prepared for – and is responding to – the coronavirus pandemic. We want to learn more about recent decisions taken at the heart of government. If you're a whistleblower or source and with new information, you can email investigations@theguardian.com, or (using a non-work phone) use Signal or WhatsApp to message (UK) +44 7584 640566.

Documents show that Movianto’s £10.5m-a-year contract with the NHS stipulated that the company could be “called upon at any time to make urgent deliveries of medical supplies anywhere in the United Kingdom on short notice or no notice”.

After winning the contract in 2018 to manage and distribute the stockpile, which was valued at more than £500m, Movianto moved the supplies into a temporary warehouse in Knowsley, Merseyside. The former factory, built in the 1950s, had no mains electricity supply and required generators to power ventilation systems to keep stock stored at the correct temperature.

In late 2018, one of these generators malfunctioned and began billowing black smoke, according to an incident report. The fire service attended but the smoke continued for days, causing “significant soot damage” to the warehouse’s cladding, the report said. Movianto said “there was no smoke ingress into the building and no damage to the PIPP stockpile”.

In February and March 2019, shortly after the generator incident, two expert reports commissioned by the building’s landlord identified quantities of asbestos dust at the warehouse, according to documents. This was several months after Movianto began moving the stockpile into the warehouse unit. Two building contractors said the site was still being decontaminated when the stockpile arrived.

Movianto said that after learning of the asbestos dust it immediately commissioned air sampling surveys that month that showed “all results were below the limit of quantification” in the unit where the stockpile was held.

However, there are also questions about how the stockpile was stored in the temporary warehouse. Photos and footage of inside the building show large numbers of pallets containing PPE supplies stored in the aisles between racking, potentially slowing down accessing and delivering.

A former Movianto employee said the pallets should not have been stored in this way. “Having it on the floor is going to impair your ability to get access to the product in the racking,” he said. “It’s not a way you would normally run a warehouse.”

Movianto said only a “small quantity” of stock was stored in this way, adding that “as part of the normal inventory checking process, some stock would be in the aisles as it is temporarily moved down from the racking, to allow visual inspection by the stock inventory team”. However, sources familiar with the stockpile’s management said pallets were stored in this way for months.

The decision in 2018 to award Movianto the government contract – which had previously been run by DHL – is understood to have been signed off at a senior level in Whitehall, despite the company facing significant financial difficulties at the time.

Accounts show the company had failed to make a profit for eight years before winning the contract, and it had recently lost several large contracts. Multiple capital injections by its parent had failed to return the company to profitability.

The DHSC insisted that “full and proper due diligence was undertaken” before awarding the contract to Movianto.

Contributor

Harry Davies

The GuardianTramp

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