Revealed: How an email from a Turkish T-shirt salesman led to a PPE fiasco

It began with an emailed offer of help from a T-shirt salesman in Turkey who promised that he could help solve the UK’s worsening personal protective equipment (PPE) crisis.

Little more than three weeks later, a Royal Air Force plane was pictured waiting on the tarmac at an airport in Istanbul as ministers were accused of presiding over a farce.

And finally – as The Telegraph revealed on Wednesday – the saga ended in catastrophe. On arrival in the UK, thousands of hospital gowns were discovered to be “useless” and now lie in a warehouse near Heathrow. Around 170,000 more remain in Turkey after officials blocked their delivery over safety fears.

Around 68,000 gowns provided directly by the Turkish government have passed safety tests, it is understood.

On Thursday, senior MPs demanded an inquiry into how the mission – dubbed “Air Jenrick” – had gone so badly wrong.

Downing Street said the UK Government would now seek a full refund or replacement, while hospital chiefs accused ministers of making critical deals “on a wing and a prayer”.

NHS procurement chiefs, meanwhile, questioned why officials had pinned their hopes on a firm founded only four months ago with experience of making T-shirts and tracksuits rather than high-quality medical gear.

The Istanbul-based company, Selegna Tekstil, first came to the attention of the UK Government in mid-March when Mehmet Duzen, a former parliamentary candidate turned textile salesman, saw an appeal for supplies and sent an email to the Department of Health.

Mr Duzen had an affection for the UK, having lived in London in the mid-2000s. In his message, the businessman said he had a factory capable of churning out hundreds of thousands of hospital gowns, each made to stringent safety standards and fit for the NHS front line.

For around two weeks, the Department of Health did not reply. But then, as supply chains in China dried up and hospitals began running out of vital protective gear, Mr Duzen received a grateful response.

Back-and-forth discussions began over an order of 400,000 gowns, to be produced at the Selegna factory and flown back to the UK. NHS officials sent over complicated documents setting out UK standards in detail, including sleeve lengths and the type of non-woven material needed to repel virus-carrying fluid.

At first glance, Selegna appears to have been an unlikely saviour. Documents show the company was only founded on January 31 to supply clothing including T-shirts and tracksuits. Its slogan was “More Than Expected”.

As coronavirus began to spread around the world, Mr Duzen and his sister Naile, the firm’s owner, decided to switch production to high-quality medical gear. One factory that previously made sweets was instructed to make masks instead.

Mark Roscrow, the chairman of the Health Care Supply Association, which represents NHS procurement chiefs, said Selegna’s lack of a track record “should have raised the alarm”.

“We should have done proper checks on the company,” Mr Roscrow said. “It should have raised obvious risks because the company didn’t have much experience. 

“Clearly we had some confidence in them, but that has apparently been a mistake. It’s ended up with money being poured down the drain.”

On Thursday April 17, the deal was approved and the order placed. The next day, Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) officials paid a deposit, with the contract stating that the full balance would be paid on delivery.

By that time, hospitals were at risk of running out of gowns completely. Only hours before, Public Health England (PHE) had sent out an unprecedented alert warning health workers to reuse their disposable gowns and, where possible, to wear aprons and laboratory coats instead.

Ministers were under severe pressure to explain to the public where the next consignments of vital PPE were coming from, so the fateful decision was taken to tell the nation about the Turkey delivery at the Downing Street press conference led by Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, on Saturday April 19.

“Today I can report that a very large consignment of PPE is due to arrive in the UK tomorrow from Turkey, which amounts to 84 tonnes of PPE and will include, for example, 400,000 gowns – so a very significant additional shipment,” he said.

According to one report, officials from the Department of Health warned Number 10 not to publicise the Turkey deal but were overruled.

Behind the scenes, there was already a problem. A draconian weekend lockdown had just been enforced in Turkey. In Istanbul, Mr Duzen and his colleagues found their usual suppliers were unavailable, with factory workers forced to stay at home.

Meanwhile, the firm had not yet formally secured an export license from the Turkish government, needed to sidestep a national export ban on PPE.

“If it was a normal order, I would have cancelled it because there was a misunderstanding and there was no time,” Mr Duzen told the Financial Times last month. “How could I supply the goods in one night? We didn’t sleep.” 

During frantic conference calls, UK officials tried to break down the obstacles in time to fulfil Mr Jenrick’s promise.

The following day, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, admitted that the consignment was not yet ready, adding that he hoped it would arrive the next day.

On Monday, as the “Air Jenrick” mission dominated news coverage, the decision was taken to send the Airbus A400-M plane to Turkey anyway in order to apply pressure.

According to one senior Whitehall source, there was “considerable disquiet” among RAF chiefs as Government press officers sent out regular releases promising that the delivery would shortly arrive.

“The MOD was not part of this. The RAF was only there to help out,” the source said. “There were constant updates every time the plane moved an inch, and pictures in the newspapers. It looked ridiculous, frankly.”

The PPE order was still not ready, however. Eventually, the Turkish government stepped in to help UK ministers save face. It was arranged that a last-minute shipment of only 32,000 gowns made by Ushas, a state-backed firm, would be packed onto the plane, which finally left for RAF Brize Norton on the Monday afternoon. 

Exactly what happened next is unclear. According to sources, UK officials in Turkey did check the boxes of gowns supplied by Selegna to make sure they adhered to the agreed standards.

After being given the go-ahead, RAF personnel dragged an initial consignment of around 67,000 gowns on to two more planes, which left for the UK later that week. But when they arrived, inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive discovered a major problem. Tests on around 2,400 of the gowns revealed that they would not, in fact, keep NHS workers safe from coronavirus.

Around 4,500 more did pass the tests, but officials placed an immediate halt on further deliveries. The “useless” gowns were impounded in a facility near Heathrow, where they remain.

Senior sources admitted on Thursday that a further 170,000 Selegna gowns were blocked by the UK after the alarm was raised, and are still in Turkey being checked by the Turkish Standards Institute.

Hospital trusts which had been promised the vital gear were then informed that their deliveries had been cancelled.

Asked on Thursday what had happened, Mr Duzen claimed he had not received any complaints from the NHS. “The fabric we supplied was certified,” he insisted. “If there was a problem, they could do research and let us know.”

Sources at the Department of Health, however, said officials were in negotiations with Selegna to either supply safe PPE or hand back the deposit.

“There was a view that it was good enough PPE – it is only when it has got here that teams have looked at it again and taken a view that it is not up to the right standard and they’ve decided not to use it,” said Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, on Thursday.

Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the defence select committee, called for an investigation “if errors have been committed”. He said: “I want this Government to succeed – but you need to demonstrate your success, not promise it and fail to deliver.”

Niall Dickson, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said: “This illustrates the danger of making promises on a wing and a prayer. 

“We have warned repeatedly that setting big targets which are then not met and saying all will be well, when at the sharp end of care it is manifestly not, undermines confidence among clinical staff on the front line.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said on Thursday that ministers were grateful for the assistance of the Turkish government, adding: “We have received part of an order of around 400,000 gowns from a private supplier in Turkey. While a small number of these gowns have failed tests in the UK, more have passed tests making them suitable for use in the NHS.

“We are working night and day to source PPE internationally and domestically, and more orders are lined up and expected from suppliers in the UK and overseas.” 

By Bill Gardner