A Chinese PPE manufacturer that Stormont is poised to place a multi-million pound order with is a “credible” supplier, the finance minister has said.
Conor Murphy said securing personal protective equipment from overseas did come with risks, but he insisted the executive was doing all it could to mitigate those risks.
Mr Murphy and Health Minister Robin Swann visited a factory in Belfast on Friday afternoon that has re-purposed production lines to make millions of pieces of PPE locally.
On the visit they addressed concerns that have been raised about the administration’s efforts to secure PPE internationally.
On Friday, BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show revealed that a Department of Health official had raised flags about the £170 million deal with a Chinese state firm, expressing concern about the quality of the PPE products and that the executive may place itself in competition with UK-wide procurement efforts in China.
A previous executive effort to purchase PPE from China fell through after the administration was outmuscled by rival bids from the US and India.
Mr Murphy and Mr Swann both insisted the new deal did not place them in competition with the UK Government’s co-ordinated supply line.
They also said they would be securing assurances over the quality of the products purchased.
“We’re dealing with people who have credibility, we are dealing with people who have a state association and an assurance from the Chinese government,” said Mr Murphy.
“And we’re dealing with the Chinese administration itself to make sure.
“And we have people on the ground trying to ensure that there’s quality, that there’s security of supply.
“There are always risks in going to procure items abroad, but what we have to do is mitigate those risks, to make sure that we have assurances on security of supply, quality of products.
“And then we also have to balance that out against what’s needed, what’s needed for frontline staff in this pandemic.”
On the question of Stormont pursing different procurement lines, local, UK and international, Mr Swann said one did not represent a threat to the others.
“There’s no threat, there’s no challenge – this is about working in partnership to make sure we have the PPE supply that we need in Northern Ireland,” he said.
The minister added: “As health minister I will not put any inferior product into the line or into the supply chain for my health workers to use.
“That would be irresponsible and I wouldn’t do that.”
The ministers made the remarks on a visit to Huhtamaki in west Belfast – a company that has partnered with another Northern Ireland business, Bloc Blinds, to produce four to six million face shields a week.
Mr Swann said: “I am delighted to visit Huhtamaki today to see the essential work they are doing to help ensure our health and social care workers have the protective equipment they need.
“We are working very hard to build up our PPE stockpiles for the post surge period and the expected second surge and I will pursue every feasible route locally and indeed internationally to do this.
“The protection of our frontline health and safety staff is an absolute priority and my Department continues to work with the Department of Finance to ensure that all supply lines are maximised to their full potential.”
Mr Murphy added: “I commend Huhtamaki and Bloc Blinds for their partnership approach to manufacturing face shields visors for health and social care staff, the first large order of which arrived today which will be sent out to Trusts immediately.
“Local companies are playing a key role in helping protect our frontline workers in the fight against Covid-19.
“Over 300 local businesses have so far offered to help produce PPE equipment with orders having been placed for 75 million items of PPE.”