Human rights must not be 'trampled' in global rush for PPE, say MPs

By Pete Pattisson

MPs and experts in the procurement of personal protective equipment have said human rights must not be “trampled” in the rush to secure PPE for frontline workers via global supply chains.

The calls come after a Guardian investigation found evidence that the British government had sourced PPE from factories in China where hundreds of North Korean women have been secretly working in conditions of modern slavery.

“These findings are extremely concerning and will worry all who read them,” said the Labour MP and shadow cabinet member Rachel Reeves. “We urge the government to investigate them immediately and outline exactly how procurement processes could have got them in a place where this kind of supply chain check didn’t happen. The UK’s ethical obligations should not be jeopardised at a time like this.”

Paul Scriven, an outspoken critic of the way the government has sourced PPE, said more must be done to ensure human rights were not sidelined in the rush to get protective equipment to frontline NHS staff.

“This is another example of the way in which PPE procurement clearly isn’t being done with both probity and ethics at the centre of its operation,” he said.

The Guardian’s findings come as the government faces allegations of corruption, cronyism and incompetence in its management of PPE procurement, using regulations that do not require open competition for contracts at times of “extreme urgency”.

A National Audit Office report published on Wednesday into government procurement during the pandemic said: “We cannot give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases.”

The Guardian reported in September that the government had sourced rubber medical gloves for the NHS from a Malaysian manufacturer that has faced repeated allegations of serious worker abuse.

Prof Mahmood Bhutta, the co-founder of the Medical Fair and Ethical Trade Group at the British Medical Association, said: “We are deeply concerned by reports that the government has procured gloves made by migrant slave labour and now gowns made by North Korean slave labour. The government states it has processes in place to stop taxpayers’ money funding such illegal and immoral practices. Evidently these are inadequate.”