PMQs: Sir Keir Starmer raises questions over £150m spend on PPE contract

11 November 2020, 12:51 | Updated: 11 November 2020, 13:35

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Boris Johnson was challenged during Prime Minister's Questions to answer how many useable face masks were distributed to NHS frontline workers off the back of a £150m government contract.

Sir Keir Starmer was pressing the prime minister on how much money has been wasted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Labour leader told MPs: "This is not the prime minister's money, it is taxpayers' money. The prime minister may well not know the value of the pound in his pocket, but the people who send us here do and they expect us to spend it wisely."

Giving the example of a company awarded "about £150 million" to produce face masks, Sir Keir said the government has "a lax attitude to taxpayers' money".

He asked: "How many usable face masks were actually provided to NHS workers on the front line under that contract?"

Read more: Covid vaccine 'not a get-out clause' for second wave, Van Tam says

Watch in full: PMQs - Boris Johnson faces Sir Keir Starmer after vaccine briefing

Boris Johnson was pressed on how much money has been wasted during the pandemic
Boris Johnson was pressed on how much money has been wasted during the pandemic. Picture: PA

Mr Johnson replied: "We're in the middle of a global pandemic in which this government has so far secured and delivered 32 billion items of personal protective equipment.

"And yes, it is absolutely correct that it has been necessary to work with the private sector, with manufacturers who provide equipment such as this - some of them more effectively than others.

"But it is the private sector that in the end makes the PPE, it is the private sector that provides the testing equipment, and it is the private sector that, no matter how much the party opposite may hate them, it is the private sector that provides the vaccines and the scientific breakthroughs."

He also defended the government's spending on PR firms to support information about vaccines after being challenged by Sir Keir on the £130 million spent on PR consultants this year.

Speaking on Armistice Day, the Labour leader said: "The chancellor's package for forces charities was just £6 million during this pandemic and that's just not sufficient. Can I ask the prime minister to reconsider that support on their behalf?

"Because at the same time, we've all seen this weekend that the government can find £670,000 for PR consultants. That's the tip of the iceberg.

"New research today shows that the government has spent at least £130 million of taxpayers' money on PR companies and that's this year alone.

"Does the prime minister think that that's a reasonable use of taxpayers' money?"

Mr Johnson replied: "I think he's referring to the vaccines taskforce and after days in which the Labour Party has attacked the vaccines taskforce I think it might be in order for him to pay tribute to them for securing 40 million doses.

"And by the way, the expenditure to which he refers was to help raise awareness of vaccines, to fight the anti-vaxxers and to persuade the people of this country - 300,000 - to take part in trials without which we can't have vaccines. So I think he should take it back."

The prime minister also reiterated that the government has offered support to Brits throughout the pandemic via its ongoing furlough scheme.

He said: "The furlough programme has continued throughout this pandemic, it went right the way through to October, it is now going through to March. It is one of the most generous programmes in the world - 80 per cent of income supported by this government.

"An overall package of £210 billion going in to support jobs, families and livelihoods throughout this country. I think this country can be very proud of the way we have looked after the entire population and we are going to continue to do so."

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