Fifty million face masks bought by the government as part of a £252m contract will not be used in the NHS due to safety concerns.

The masks, ordered from Ayanda Capital, have ear loops rather than head loops and there are concerns over whether they are adequate. The government confirmed in court papers that the masks, which are in the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) logistic chain, will not be used in the NHS.

The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor, which are suing the government over its Ayanda contract, estimate the 50m masks would have cost more than £150m.

Court papers show the government awarded the £252.5m contract to Ayanda on 29 April, with £41.25m payable on commencement to secure the manufacturing capacity.

Ayanda also supplied 150m masks of another type, which the government says are unaffected but will be subject to further testing in the UK before any are released for NHS use.

The government also disclosed in court papers that the original approach to sell the masks came from a businessman called Andrew Mills, the director of a company called Prospermill, which had secured exclusive rights to the full production capacity of a large factory in China to manufacture masks and offer a large quantity almost immediately.

The legal document revealed Mills requested DHSC’s contractual counterparty should be Ayanda rather than Prospermill, as Ayanda already had an established international banking infrastructure that could be used to effect the necessary payments overseas, whereas Prospermill’s own bank had indicated it could take some time to set this up on its own account.

The government also said in court papers that Mills was an adviser to the UK Board of Trade and a senior board adviser at Ayanda.

Mills told the BBC his position played no part in the award of the contract, the broadcaster reported.

Jolyon Maugham, the director of the Good Law Project, said: “Good Law Project wrote to government on three contracts each worth over £100m – with respectively a pest control company, a confectioner and a family hedge fund.

“Each of those contracts has revealed real cause for alarm – including, on Ayanda, that around £150m was spent on unusable masks. What other failures remain undiscovered?”

The Covid-19 pandemic is currently unfolding in “one big wave” with no evidence that it follows seasonal variations common to influenza and other coronaviruses, such as the common cold, the World Health Organization has warned.

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics. Until now that had been what was expected from Covid-19.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

In June 2020, Beijing suffered from a new cluster of coronavirus cases which caused authorities to re-implement restrictions that China had previously been able to lift. In the UK, the city of Leicester was unable to come out of lockdown because of the development of a new spike of coronavirus cases. Clusters also emerged in Melbourne, requiring a re-imposition of lockdown conditions.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

However Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, says “‘Second wave’ isn’t a term that we would use at the current time, as the virus hasn’t gone away, it’s in our population, it has spread to 188 countries so far, and what we are seeing now is essentially localised spikes or a localised return of a large number of cases.” 

The overall threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry is that with a vaccine still many months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter BeaumontEmma Graham-Harrison and Martin Belam

Julia Patterson, the 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.”

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said the case for the National Audit Office to investigate the government’s mishandling of personal protective equipment (PPE) was “overwhelming”, adding: “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.”

The Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, said a clear strategy for procuring PPE was urgently needed, adding: “The government has serious questions to answer over this shocking waste of taxpayers’ money.”

A government spokesman said: “Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the frontline.

“Over 2.4 billion items have been delivered and more than 30bn have been ordered from UK-based manufacturers and international partners to provide a continuous supply, which meets the needs of health and social care staff both now and in the future.

“There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with the necessary due diligence undertaken on all government contracts.”

On its website, Ayanda says it is “a family office focused on a broad investment strategy”, adding: “We focus on currency trading, offshore property, and private equity and trade financing.”

Ayanda has been contacted for comment.

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