Health ministry ran ‘VIP lane’ for contracts to buy face masks

Photo: Brandon Hartley

The Dutch government prioritised “politically sensitive” bidders for protective equipment contracts at the start of the coronavirus pandemic because it was anxious about negative publicity, a report has found.

The Volkskrant reports that the health ministry drew up a ‘VIP lane’ of 239 bidders, mostly big businesses and well connected entrepreneurs, out of the 3,600 offers to buy face masks, surgical gloves and other medical garments.

Among the VIPs was Sywert van Lienden, a prominent former Christian Democrat (CDA) activist whose not-for-profit organisation Stichting Hulptroepen Alliantie, was awarded a €100 million contract to import masks from China.

It later emerged that the deal had been routed through a limited company set up by Van Lienden and two associates, netting them a total of €20 million in profits.

The then health minister, Hugo de Jonge, contacted civil servants urging them to do a deal with Van Lienden, arguing that it was better to have him “inside pissing out than outside pissing in”.

Other entrepreneurs who successfully used their political contacts to secure lucrative PPE contracts included Ferrari dealer Frits Kroymans, who earned an estimated €35 million from buying medical gowns.

Many of those on the VIP list had little or no experience of importing medical equipment before the pandemic began, according to a report by Deloitte into the contracts.

Coathanger CEO

They included Sjoerd Fauser, the CEO of a company that makes sustainable coathangers, who secured a €29.5 million advance payment from the health ministry to import breathing apparatus and a €17.5 million order for Chinese face masks.

Fauser owed his place on the list to his father Bart, a professor of reproductive medicine at Utrecht university, and his partner, the former Labour party (PvdA) senator and interior minister Guusje ter Horst.

Ter Horst recommended Sjoerd Fauser to the family doctors’ association LVH on the basis of his contacts with the Chinese government, saying he offered a “huge opportunity” to acquire protective equipment quickly.

Fauser mentioned the former minister’s support when he contacted the ministry directly by email. “She advised me to offer this product directly to the ministry,” he wrote.

The health ministry put Fauser in touch with the government’s official purchasing channel, LCH. Fauser claimed in emails that he had supplied “tens of millions of masks directly to the health ministry,” but purchasers cast doubt about his certificates.

The doubts were enough for LCH to reduce its order from 18 million masks to eight million. Fauser was later asked to return the advance payment after he failed to deliver the respirators or arrange transport for his masks, as promised, but only repaid €8.7 million of the €17.5 million was repaid, the Volkskrant said.

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