Health ministry takes heat for delayed delivery of biohazard suits
By Igor Kossov.
A growing scandal has engulfed the Ministry of Health, raising the old specter of corruption that has haunted it for decades.
Controversy already surrounded the ministry’s decision to halt a domestic tender for protective suits and instead have different suits delivered from China at almost twice the cost. These suits were supposed to arrive in Ukraine on May 1.
Now, almost three weeks later, Ukraine has received only 29,524 suits out of the promised 71,347 — a mere 40% of the total. In spite of this, the health ministry has already paid for about half of the order.
“They lie at every step,” wrote Voice party lawmaker Oleksandra Ustinova, who published the documents revealing this information.
The health ministry’s press service referred the Kyiv Post to Artem Degtyarenko, the spokesman for deputy minister Svitlana Shatalova. Degtyarenko did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ukraine has struggled with personal protective equipment shortages. About a fifth of Ukrainians infected with COVID-19 were medical workers, partly due to the shortages and partly because they didn’t follow safety protocols.
The health ministry last month ordered state company Medical Procurement of Ukraine to buy 90,000 protective suits and set aside Hr 36 million ($1.3 million). Soon, Medical Procurement found a Kyiv-based manufacturer, Textile Contact, who was willing to deliver for Hr 22 million ($822,900).
A deal was struck. But days later, the ministry called Textile Contact, said the deal was off and launched its own tender. The winner, a small Ukrainian wholesaler called Meddiv, was selected in just one day, in a process that critics called uncompetitive.
According to transparency database YouControl, Meddiv only started participating in tenders as of late February, supplying three dozen orders of personal protective equipment — or PPE for short — from Hr 4,500 to Hr 416,000 in value. The deal with the Ministry of Health is many times larger than all its other tenders combined.
Meddiv would import 71,347 suits from China’s Nanjing Trust Garment Company for about Hr 35 million, which is almost twice as much per unit as the original order.
Attempts to reach the company at its official Kyiv phone number have failed.
The ministry accused Medical Procurement of ordering suits that don’t adhere to European standard EN 14126:2003 for protective clothing. Meeting the standard requires passing tests to see if several types of bacteria and one type of virus can penetrate the clothing.
The ministry’s original order made no mention of the standard. Neither have local health officials been held to this standard when buying suits. The company showed the Kyiv Post documents proving its adherence to local Ukrainian standards.
Textile Contact was told that Ukraine lacks the lab facilities to certify EN 14126:2003, ensuring that protective suits would be coming from abroad.
Volodymyr Kurpita, the former head of the Center for Public Health, said that the standard makes no sense in the context of viral infections and that the virus can get through Ukrainian, Chinese and German suits, which is why the protective clothing must be worn with respirator masks.
The ministry said it would investigate Medical Procurement over this. It also told media that the state company failed to provide information to the ministry. Medical Procurement denied this, saying it provided every detail at every step of the way.
Late and incomplete
The ministry’s 71,347 suits were supposed to arrive at the start of the month. On May 15, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov told the BBC that China had held up the shipment and it would be arriving shortly. On May 17, Stepanov said at a briefing that the suits were delivered.
However Ustinova then found and published official invoices showing that only 29,524 suits were delivered, while the ministry had approved the payment of Hr 17.8 million.
The following day, the ministry sent a letter to Meddiv, saying that the company had only delivered on Hr 14.2 million worth of suits and that the ministry would be charging it a fine of 0.1% of the goods’ cost. A 30 day delay would incur another 7% of the goods’ cost in fines.
Ustinova and health care activists critical of Stepanov suspect that this letter was meant to cover the ministry’s tracks after it was exposed that not all the suits had been delivered. The ministry made no mention of the shortage prior to the revelation.
“I caught them by the hand, so they are trying to tidy up,” said Ustinova.
She added: “I have a question, when the Hr 17 million was paid out yesterday, when only Hr 14 million in goods has arrived, did the penalty fine question arise?”
Following the revelation, the Voice party started collecting signatures calling for Stepanov’s ouster.