Dutch to investigate business trio’s €100m face mask deal

Scrutiny of government procedures after ‘not-for-profit’ PPE contract led to ‘€20m enrichment’

The Dutch government has promised an independent investigation into a supposedly not-for-profit €100m (£86m) deal to buy face masks from China last year that ended up making three young entrepreneurs about €20m richer.

The investigative website Follow the Money (FTM) revealed that Sywert van Lienden, 30, a former civil servant turned TV pundit and activist, who co-wrote the manifesto of the Christian Democrat (CDA) party (part of the ruling coalition), netted €9.2m.

His two associates, Bernd Damme and Camille van Gestel, made €5.7m and €5.5m respectively, after launching a not-for-profit foundation amid a barrage of publicity in April 2020, after hospitals and officials warned of a desperate shortage of PPE.

Barely two days after the launch of their Auxiliary Forces Alliance charity, however, the trio set up a limited company that was used to buy and import the 40m masks. They have confirmed the details of the scheme – and their profits – to FTM.

Van Lienden apologised for what he called an “inexplicable … lack of transparency and openness”, telling Dutch television this weekend he had been “completely destroyed and humiliated” and had “disappointed a lot of people”.

He insisted the deal was legal, but said he understood why health workers found it “incomprehensible such sums were made”. He also said he regretted waiting until last month, when the Volkskrant newspaper revealed details of the scheme, before “shouting from the rooftops that a private limited company was involved”.

Unlike van Gestel, who has said he will keep the his share of the profits, van Lienden said – “depending on the devastating consequences of this media storm” for his professional career – he hoped to donate much of his payment to charities funding youth cancer research and underprivileged children.

There is no evidence any Dutch politician profited personally from the deal, but a spotlight has been thrown on the government’s handling of the affair given van Lienden used his contacts in the Hague to advance and publicise the contract, approaching the health minister, Hugo de Jonge, and his assistant.

After insisting to MPs last week that it was “irrelevant” that a private company was involved because van Lienden had offered “good quality masks at a reasonable price” and that was all that mattered, the Dutch minister for medical care, Tamara van Ark, this week agreed to a independent investigation into the scandal.

Van Ark said it had only recently been brought to her attention that the health ministry had funded the deal upfront. “The most important thing was that we had the face masks,” she told Dutch television. “We did not have the luxury of choice.”

In the end, however, the masks sourced by the trio were not needed and are still in storage, with some reports questioning whether or not they met safety standards.

The scandal echoes other Covid-19 procurement scandals in Europe. In March it emerged that centre-right CDU politicians in the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate had earned six-figure commissions for brokering deals to procure face masks during last year’s first coronvirus wave.

Two and a half months after the latest Dutch elections, meanwhile, talks on forming a cabinet are proving difficult and the chief negotiator is expected to ask for more time to identify the parties willing to work together in a new coalition.

The liberal-conservative VVD party of the prime minister, Mark Rutte, and the CDA are happy to have one centre-left party in the new coalition but not two - and Labour (PvdA) and the Green-Left are insisting on being entering government together.

In addition, the progressive Democrats 66 party, which finished second behind the VVD, does not want to work with the third member of the current coalition, the socially conservative Christian Union.

Contributor

Jon Henley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Coronavirus in Europe: French and Dutch on alert over rise in cases
New infections back to nearly half their peak in the Netherlands as France reports ‘worrying increase’

Jon Henley in Paris and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

11, Aug, 2020 @4:05 PM

Article image
Dutch scheme to boost wilting flower industry takes root
More than 1,000 firms sign up to buy and give away blooms to stem losses caused by Covid-19

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

03, Apr, 2020 @4:00 AM

Article image
Czech Republic lifts face mask rule as coronavirus restrictions ease
Compulsory wearing of face masks outside ditched as pubs, restaurants and hotels reopen

Robert Tait in Prague

25, May, 2020 @1:42 PM

Article image
Germany and Netherlands likely to extend Covid lockdowns
German chancellor says infections may rise 10-fold by Easter if virus’s spread is not halted

Jon Henley in Paris, Kate Connolly in Berlin, and Daniel Boffey in Brussels

12, Jan, 2021 @6:23 PM

Article image
Israel and Netherlands studies claim progress in Covid-19 antibody trials
Scientists welcome ‘initial step’ towards developing antibody to treat or prevent coronavirus

Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem

05, May, 2020 @3:13 PM

Article image
Lockdowns return or are extended as third wave of Covid sweeps Europe
Plans to ease restrictions have been rolled back in several countries owing to new variants taking hold

Jon Henley

22, Mar, 2021 @6:09 PM

Article image
Czech Republic scraps face mask rule as Prague hosts outdoor party
Masks no longer required indoors and 2,000 people dine on Charles Bridge to bid Covid-19 ‘farewell’

Robert Tait in Prague

01, Jul, 2020 @4:39 PM

Article image
Netherlands and Germany refuse entry to UK nationals for non-essential travel
Thirteen people barred since Brexit because UK no longer exempt from EU Covid-related travel restrictions

Jon Henley Europe correspondent and Philip Oltermann in Berlin

04, Jan, 2021 @5:53 PM

Article image
EU approves Moderna jab amid tensions over slow rollout of vaccines
Move should ease frustrations over low supplies of Pfizer vaccine and EU’s longer authorisation process

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

06, Jan, 2021 @4:34 PM

Article image
'Do not let this fire burn': WHO warns Europe over Covid-19
Europe now centre of pandemic, says WHO, as Spain prepares for state of emergency

Jon Henley in Paris and Sam Jones in Madrid

13, Mar, 2020 @9:58 PM