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Exclusive: A Scottish Property Developer Who Said He Knew "Nothing At All" About PPE Was Handed £9.6m To Supply Surgical Gowns To The NHS

Ministers awarded the contract to provide £9.6m of PPE

5 min read

A Scottish property firm whose director admitted he knew “nothing at all” about PPE before the pandemic, and who says he managed a deal with Chinese suppliers from his bedroom, was awarded a £9.6m contract to purchase equipment for the NHS.

Scottish property developer Ross Harper was handed the multi-million pound contract through his firm, Robert Housely Limited, in June, despite later admitting he had decided to get involved with PPE procurement because he was "bored" as a result of the slowdown in his other businesses.

According to contract documents published by the Department of Health, Mr Harper's company was awarded the contract to provide surgical gowns which would be manufactured by Chinese-based Anhui Medpurest Medical Technology Company Limited.

Mr Harper's firm, which has no website and is registered to a serviced office complex in Glasgow's West End, was given the contract despite its primary business area being listed with Companies House as focussing on "other accommodation". The firm, which was established in 2012, does not appear to have previously been awarded any other government contracts.

The contract to supply PPE from the Chinese factory came alongside the Department of Health and Social Care making similar purchases of equipment directly from other factories within the country.

The contract details state the cash was awarded to Mr Harper's firm "without a prior publication of a call for competition" as a result of the "extreme urgency" brought about by the pandemic.

Ministers have repeatedly insisted that proper due diligence was carried out on each contract to provide PPE.

But in an interview posted to Facebook, Mr Harper admitted he had "never imported anything in my life" and that he "didn't really know what PPE was" before the pandemic hit.

"I commited money to China in February when Wuhan was at its lowest point, or its highest point in terms of Covid,” he said.

“I gifted money to the Chinese government to buy masks and things. I got a nice letter from them and when we went into lockdown I approached a few contacts I have and said: 'Look, this is what I did for China. Is there any way that you could then do the same?'

"To put that into context I don't buy stuff on the internet. I have never bought anything on Amazon or digitally. It is just alien for me. I have never imported anything in my life.

"But I suddenly realised that because of the problem China had had with masks previously, I was thinking if they had had problems with it and they are the main creator, then we are going to have similar problems which proved to be the case."

Mr Harper said after putting his property businesses into "limp mode" as a result of the pandemic that he had a conversation with a business partner about "being bored" and that he wanted to have a "wee shot at doing imports on PPE".

He added: "Now I didn't really know what PPE was. I thought it was masks but I didn't realise what a range of things there were."

The businessman said he had started importing PPE from China at the beginning of the pandemic and had sold it to care homes and other healthcare facilities in the UK.

He said these sales led to him being offered the government contract to procure 1.2 million surgical gowns for the NHS.

But according to Mr Harper, the government agreed to collect the gowns directly from the Chinese factory despite him putting forward a bid which had included his costs for delivering the items to the UK.

He said the deal, arranged from his bedroom, had been his most successful this year in terms of profits and had been “spectacular” for the company.

"We created [the gowns], about 100,000 or 120,000 a week, and they actually collected them in China which was great because we had priced them as if we were bringing them back to the UK so we were able to save.

"In saying there was a business that was set up, it was only me operating from one of my bedrooms and [another staff member] operating from her living room which was a different place...

"It has been set up and it will be the most successful business I reckon I have done this year, just through revenue and through profits. It has been spectacular and will be spectacular."

Questioned in the comments section if he "knew much" about PPE and the risks of importing before the pandemic, he replied: "No nothing at all. We did put effort into finding a trustworthy partner and also to [making] checks and measures to secure against mistakes."

Mr Harper said he hoped the contract would lead to further work with the NHS and the United Nations.

While it appears the firm was able to deliver the PPE, the contract raises further questions about ministers' claims that businesses were vetted thoroughly before contracts for PPE were awarded.

Responding to the contract, shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves, said: "Questions need to be answered here so taxpayers know the government isn't handing contracts out that won't deliver, and to reassure qualified and experienced British businesses they're not being left out in the cold.

"With worrying stories of taxpayer money wasted through middlemen, and concerning revelations from the National Audit Office that hundreds of firms were fast-tracked for contracts after tips from ministers and MPs, it's right that the government is far more transparent when questions appear on contracts like this."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE, delivering more than 4.9 billion items to the frontline so far. Almost 32 billion items have been ordered to provide a continuous supply, which will meet the future needs of health and social care staff.

We received an extraordinary response to our call to action to supply PPE to the frontline. We are hugely grateful to everyone who came forward and are proud that UK manufacturers will now be able to supply 70% of the PPE required, for all items except gloves.

"Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously."

Mr Harper has been approached for comment.

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