PPE, Part II: UK health department takes second stab at e-commerce system for personal protective equipment

Let's hope this time a shortage can be averted


The UK government has awarded a £5m contract to build the second generation of its e-commerce portal to help health providers get hold of personal protection equipment (PPE) during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

The Department for Health and Social Care handed the two-year contract, which started on 30 June 2021, to CTI Digital, a Manchester digital marketing and e-commerce services firm, seemingly without prior competition.

The supplier is expected to provide “services related to the development and maintenance of a new E-Commerce platform ('Portal 2.0') procured by the Department of Health and Social Care for the COVID-19 PPE Programme” under the contract, which allows for two 12-month extensions. The system will be built on Adobe Magento e-commerce software, the commercial licences for which will be agreed in a separate deal.

The government’s first stab at a PPE e-commerce portal can be used by social care and primary care providers to get critical coronavirus was launched in June 2020. To build it, the DHSC worked with eBay, Clipper Logistics, Unipart Logistics, Volvo Commerce and Royal Mail.

In January, the DHSC claimed that the original portal had shipped 1 billion items of PPE.

Of course, the implementation of the portal was too late to avert the UK’s PPE shortage. In April 2020, the BBC Panorama programme said that vital items of PPE were left out of the stockpile in the build-up to the pandemic and claimed the government ignored a warning from its own advisers to buy missing equipment.

But this year, former health secretary Matt Hancock took the opportunity of an appearance before the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee to deny there ever had been a shortage of PPE, at least at a national level.

Hancock, whose gross mismanagement of the biggest health crisis to face the UK in 50 years affair with a colleague prompted his resignation last week, had an unconventional approach to procurement during the coronavirus crisis, some said.

According to reports, a pub landlord and former neighbour of Hancock won a contract to supply tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 tests having exchanged WhatsApp messages with the minister on the subject.

Meanwhile, a case brought by the Good Law Project succeeded in convincing the courts that the former health secretary had acted unlawfully by failing to publish multi-billion-pound COVID-19 government contracts, including those for PPE, within the 30-day period required by law.

Hancock had also said it was “perfectly reasonable” that he might help former Conservative MP get a PPE deal worth £180m. News reports found internal government emails which suggested an aid to the health secretary had sent emails asking for the bid to be brought to the personal attention of the government’s PPE tsar Lord Deighton. ®

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