Officials spent £6m on body bags from Slovakia at height of first wave

A week before the contract was signed in April, the Department of Health maintained that the UK had an adequate supply of body bags

Health officials were forced to import body bags from Slovakia amid a global shortfall at the height of the first wave of Covid. 

Ministers agreed in April to pay £6m to Bratislava-based medical goods firm Sanaclis as the UK’s Covid death rate spiralled and stocks ran low, according to official filings.

The contract highlights how the Department of Health and Social Care rushed to procure more body bags as the crisis deepened and deaths rocketed, with a clause in the agreement stating that “time is of the essence” for the goods to be delivered. 

Healthcare workers reported having to wrap corpses in bedsheets in April due to severe shortages, while mortuary suppliers said that they had run out of stock entirely.

At the time, the Department for Health insisted that Britain had an adequate stock of body bags. However, the rush to pay a Slovakian company £6m for more suggests that supplies were reaching critically low levels. 

Officials refused to comment on how many bags were secured under the agreement, saying only that details would be published in due course.

The contract was agreed without a competitive tender process due to the “extreme urgency brought about by events”, filings say.

Ministers are under mounting pressure to disclose details of billions of pounds handed over to private companies for contracts related to their pandemic response, with campaigners threatening legal action if transparency does not improve. 

Huge sums have been spent on contractors tasked with scaling up the UK's Covid testing infrastructure, helping to build the Test and Trace system and delivering emergency lending programmes for businesses, and there are calls for ministers to show that taxpayers got value for money. 

A Department for Health spokesman said that almost 32bn items of PPE have been ordered for workers, with almost 5bn delivered to the front line so far.

“The direct awarding of contracts is in line with procurement rules in cases of extreme urgency,” he said.