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Latest 21 February 2024

The PPE scandal is far from over


The Tory VIP lane was a high road to cronyism, says Henry Marsh.

Life is precious, and money and medicine are never far apart. I have worked in many countries where corruption in healthcare is accepted as a simple fact of life. This can take many forms. In the simplest case, doctors are paid so little by the state that they depend on gifts from patients.

Whether these informal co-payments count as true corruption or not is a moot point. Then there are the kickbacks where companies pay doctors in secret or give them other inducements to use their products, which they sell to the doctors’ employers – whether in private or public hospitals – at inflated prices.

I have seen myself that this illegal practice is still common even in some EU countries. Finally, there is corruption in procurement, where government officials and politicians are bribed – often to the tune of many millions of pounds – to favour some providers over others without open commercial competition. One form of this corruption is that money goes into the coffers of political parties rather than into politicians’ trouser pockets.

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Whether I have been in the high-tech hospitals of the US or the low-tech clinics of Sudan, I took it for granted that we did some things better in Britain. In particular, despite its chronic underfunding, I thought the NHS was free from the distortions of the profit motive and corruption in procurement.

The PPE scandal – which runs all the way through Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking – shows how naïve and complacent I have been. Thanks to figures like Lady Mone, and their friends in both the Government and the Tory party, my complacency has now turned to shame. Most of us struggle to overcome an instinctive belief that people in positions of power are competent and honest – a faith born of dependency, just as patients must trust their doctors.

The revelations uncovered by Good Law Project and others have shown just how strong the political and financial links have been between the Tories and the companies awarded massive contracts for PPE under the secretive VIP lane during the pandemic.

These contracts were on average 80% more expensive, with some of them agreed at more than four times the average unit price. And it is no coincidence that much of the equipment was not fit for purpose – many of the companies had little, if any, prior experience of providing protective equipment in medical settings. The profits made and the sums wasted have been extraordinary. They are all the more disgusting because this scandal began at a time of national emergency.

The public endured lockdowns and poorly paid NHS staff put themselves at risk, with a significant number dying from Covid. Ministers stood and clapped – but at the same time furtively handed out millions to their friends and supporters.

Rot starts at the top. I live in hope that Ministers will be held to account and the rot stopped before it spreads further, and more harm is done to the NHS.

  • Henry Marsh’s latest book, And Finally: A Neurosurgeon’s Reflections on Life, is published by Vintage.