Investigation into government contract for free face masks for all

Investigation into government contract for free face masks for all
The masks were delivered to pharmacies for distribution to the population. © Belga

Police at various locations in the EU yesterday carried out search warrants in connection with an investigation into the company that provided 15 million face masks in 2020 for free distribution to the population in Belgium.

Back at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic in Belgium, the government, then led by prime minister Sophie Wilmès (MR), decided to introduce a broad obligation to wear a face mask in public.

In order to provide everyone with at least one face mask, the defence ministry was given the job of contracting out the supply, and two companies were employed. One, the Ghent-based textile firm Tweed&Cotton, would provide three million masks. The other, the Luxembourg-based Avrox, would provide 15 million.

The award of the contracts immediately caused concern. Tweed&Cotton were an established textiles manufacturer. Avrox, however, appeared to have no presence in the industry at all, and in fact was no more than a nameplate company registered in an office in Luxembourg that existed solely to serve as an address for hundreds of similar shell companies.

Questions were raised as to how such a company could have won a major contract ahead of established textiles providers. The questions increased when the masks were first delivered late, and then it emerged that the finished product did not correspond to the original call for tenders.

Rather than being wash-safe at 60 degrees, the Avrox masks could only be washed at 30 degrees. In addition, it was thought the masks contained unsafe particles.

A judicial investigation was started on a complaint from the Central Service for the Fight against Corruption, which has now led to search warrants being executed at various premises – details being for the time being unavailable.

Today, searches have been carried out in this case in various countries of the European Union,” a spokesperson for the Brussels prosecutor's office told De Tijd.

The actions were coordinated by Eurojust. The investigation concerns possible charges of money laundering, fraud, forgery and use of false documents.”

In March this year, former defence minister Philippe Goffin (MR), told parliament that the federal health ministry had approved the masks for distribution to the public. In fact, millions of the masks remain in the pharmacists’ premises from where they were supposed to be distributed to the public.

Since delivery came too late to meet the introduction of the obligatory wearing of masks on public transport and in shops, members of the public had already equipped themselves when the government masks arrived.

Goffin told parliament the contract had been fulfilled to the best of everyone’s knowledge at the time. In February, it was discovered that the masks may contain harmful particles, and the federal health institute Sciensano advised the public not to use the Avrox masks any longer.

The investigation continues.

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