Confusion grows over Turkish COVID-19 gown fiasco

The fiasco over Turkey’s shipment of medical gowns to Britain has sunk further into confusion with a series of clarifications and claims that contradicted earlier reports.

It was widely reported on Thursday that all 400,000 protective gowns sent by Turkey last month to be used by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak had been impounded for failing to meet British safety standards. The British government said on Thursday that it was in negotiations to obtain replacements or a refund. 

But this information has been rebutted, and details of the procurement process and the Turkish supplier are likely to cause embarrassment and consternation in Britain and Turkey alike. 

A clarification by Britain’s Department of Health on Thursday evening said that 2,400 gowns from an initial batch of 67,000 that had arrived in Britain last month had failed safety tests. Officials impounded most of the rest of that batch so they could be properly tested.

It was also revealed that only 4,500 gowns were passed as fit for use by the NHS – around 1 percent of the order – while another 170,000 gowns were still being held in Turkey so they could be tested there. The rest have yet to be delivered, the Guardian said. 

“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. The majority of items ordered from the private supplier are awaiting testing in the UK and Turkish warehouses,” the Guardian quoted a British government spokesman as saying.

The British ambassador to Turkey, Dominick Chilcott, acknowledged on Twitter on Thursday that the reports about the impounding of 400,000 gowns were not true, and said that the British government was grateful to Turkey for providing much needed personal protective equipment.

Turkish officials have complained that British officials – including a cabinet minister – had announced incorrect information, and denied that refunds had been requested. 

“So far nobody approached us or claimed for anything from any company in Turkey,” a Turkish diplomatic source told the Guardian. The source said that Turkey had been trying to establish what the problem was on Thursday and said that concerns over the order had been overstated.

A Turkish government spokesperson told the state-run Anadolu news agency that the Turkish authorities had stepped in and supplied a total of 68,000 gowns when a private Turkish firm was not able to deliver the products on time. They said that all gowns had passed quality checks.

Britain’s communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, promised three weeks ago that the gowns would arrive as part of an 84-tonne shipment at a time when NHS staff were warning that remaining stocks of personal protective equipment would only last a few more days, the Guardian said.

The NHS paid a deposit for the gowns, which were subject to delays at the Turkish end, but an initial shipment of 67,000 arrived in Britain more than two weeks ago.

An account of the saga appeared in a report published on Thursday evening by the Telegraph newspaper, which said that British officials had hastily pinned their hopes for sourcing gowns on Selegna Tekstil, a private Istanbul-based manufacturer only founded on January 31 to supply clothing including T-shirts and tracksuits before it switched to making medical supplies after the COVID-19 coronavirus broke out.

According to the Telegraph, Selegna’s manager Mehmet Düzen, a former parliamentary candidate turned textile salesman, had seen a British appeal for supplies and sent an email in mid-March to the British Department of Health saying his factory could produce hundreds of thousands of medical gowns that would meet NHS standards. 

The department did not reply to the email for two weeks - until hospitals were on the verge of running out of protective gear, at which point officials entered negotiations with Düzen and sent him details on British safety standards including specifications on virus-repellant materials and sleeve lengths, the Telegraph said. 

On April 17, the deal was approved and the order placed. The next day, British health officials paid a deposit, with the full balance to be paid on delivery.

But Selegna had already begun to encounter difficulties, the Telegraph said. A hastily imposed weekend curfew in Turkey meant that its usual suppliers were unavailable and factory workers were forced to stay at home. Selegna had also not formally secured an export license from the Turkish government, which imposed an export ban on PPE after the coronavirus reached Turkey in March.

The British authorities dispatched a plane to Ankara to exert pressure on Turkey and speed up the delivery. 

The Guardian said the initial shipment had been given a cursory inspection by British officials in Istanbul – which involved opening some of the boxes and taking photographs of the gowns. The initial consignment was approved and sent to Britain, but on arrival inspectors from Britain’s Health and Safety Executive discovered that around 2,400 of the gowns did not meet NHS standards on protection against COVID-19.

British hospitals which had been promised the equipment were then told the deliveries had been cancelled.

Mark Roscrow, the chairman of the Health Care Supply Association which represents NHS procurement chiefs, admitted that Selegna's lack of a track record in medical supplies should have raised the alarm.

"We should have done proper checks on the company," the Telegraph quoted Roscrow as saying. "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."

British politicians and medical officials have called for an investigation into the British government’s procurement of COVID-19 supplies. 

Selegna said it had had no contact with the NHS, but was ready to rectify any problems. “The fabric of the aprons is certified. All products are certified. If there was a problem, they could do research and let us know,” Düzen told the BBC. 

Selegna’s slogan on forming the company earlier this year was: "More Than Expected." – and while the saga over the gowns remains confusing, they have certainly delivered on that.