Profiteering over Covid PPE ‘disgraceful’, says UK government adviser | Coronavirus

A leading UK government adviser has criticised the “disgraceful” profiteering of some companies that sought contracts to provide personal protective equipment and Covid testing during the pandemic.

Speaking on Wednesday at a Royal Society conference on the science of Covid, Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and the government’s life sciences adviser, said the behaviour of certain companies in the middle of the crisis was “extremely unacceptable”.

The government has come under heavy criticism for handing out billions of pounds-worth of contracts without proper scrutiny and operating a “VIP lane” for PPE suppliers that was ruled as illegal in January.

Meanwhile, the market for commercial Covid tests ballooned, leading some critics to warn that a lack of oversight was bound to lead to unreliable testing, as occurred when the Immensa lab wrongly told more than 40,000 people they were uninfected when they may have had the virus.

Bell told the meeting there was “a lot of profiteering” among companies offering tests and PPE.

“I think this is disgraceful,” he said. “If you went into the testing space or the PPE space, there were a lot of people roaming around just trying to make money. And that, in the context of a major humanitarian crisis, was really, extremely unacceptable.”

While Bell praised the UK scientific community for getting the country “out of a lot of trouble over the last two years”, particularly with vaccines, data analysis and the rapid assessment of drugs to treat patients, he said the UK’s response to the pandemic had been poor in many ways.

“I think it’s fair to say our pandemic preparedness was pretty lamentable. Our public health capacity was poor, our capacity to expand and do more things in the public health space was also not great. And as a result, that first six months was pretty bad,” he said.

He described how communicating with politicians was “obviously a challenge” – as it was in other countries – because they came to the pandemic with no insight or knowledge of the science. “Getting them to understand that was something which I think was a struggle,” he said.

Bell was particularly critical of the heightened nationalism that hampered efforts to quell the pandemic around the world. Over the course of the crisis, some countries promoted their own approaches to tackling the pandemic, released misleading statements on certain vaccines, and secured doses and therapies at the expense of other countries.

“There were some really bad things that were not just lamentable but disgraceful in many ways,” he said. “There was a real switch to nationalism during this pandemic. Everybody looked after their own. They protected their own interests in a really profound way. But worse than that, it was to the disadvantage of people who couldn’t look after themselves.

“What emerged from that was the failure to provide rapid access to innovations to developing countries which I think will be the longstanding message from this pandemic: that we didn’t do what we all said we were going to do, which was to get developing countries up to speed,” he added.

Worst of all, Bell said, is that it is not clear the world has learned the major lessons to be prepared for the next pandemic. “You know, we’ve had big efforts at the G7 and the G20 … all that stuff,” he said. “I don’t see any tangible steps to make this any better than the next time than it was the last time. And I think that is one of the ugly realities of where we are today.”