New Details in Slovenia’s Coronavirus Equipment Scandal

By , 01 May 2020, 19:21 PM Politics
Poster in support of whistleblower Ivan Gale Poster in support of whistleblower Ivan Gale Xenia Guzej

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STA, 1 May 2020 - A week after a whistleblower at the Commodities Reserves Agency came out with accusations of political pressure in the purchasing of personal protective equipment, new questions have been raised about the procurement, most notably of the suitability of purchased ventilators.

The Tarča current affairs show, which broke the story with the deputy head of the Commodities Reserves Agency Ivan Gale last week, said on Thursday a major contract involving ventilators had been botched since the ventilators are unsuitable for Covid-19 patients.

The company that supplied the ventilators, Geneplanet, had been in the spotlight before as one of only two providers to receive 100% advance payment. It offered the most expensive ventilators and only had a bank guarantee covering 50% of the transaction, while several other providers had 100% bank guarantees, Tarča reporters said.

Geneplanet has so far delivered 110 of the 220 ordered ventilators from a Chinese supplier and must deliver the remainder by 15 May according to the contract signed with the Commodities Reserves Agency.

One of the three members of an informal medical group that had evaluated offers for ventilators, internal medicine specialist Rihard Knafelj, told Tarča his group had assessed 90 offers and the one offered by Geneplanet had been assessed as the least appropriate of the 13 that were deemed acceptable. The government was acquainted with the assessment.

Economy Minister Zdravko Počivalšek, who was recorded prodding the agency into signing the contract with Geneplanet as soon as possible, said the ventilators had previously been bought by UKC Ljubljana and had also been used by the Celje hospital. UKC Ljubljana denied having bought the exactly same type of ventilator.

Acknowledging that the ordered ventilators might be "Golfs, not Mercedeses," Počivalšek also showed a second medical opinion showing the ventilators are suitable, noting that "a single doctor does not constitute the medical profession".

Počivalšek also noted that Knafelj had been an advisor to the Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ) prior to the 2018 election. Knafelj denied any political motives to him speaking up.

Geneplanet director Marko Bitenc likewise argued the ventilators were suitable for Covid-19 patients and said they had been supplied to other countries. In response to Knafelj's argument that they needed additional components to be suitable for Covid-19 patients, Bitenc said this could be arranged, though it would raise the price slightly.

The report also claimed the ventilators ordered by Geneplanet had been the most expensive devices of the ventilators on offer, but Počivalšek repeatedly stressed that some others were not available and some had longer delivery times.

He also reiterated that the situation at the time was chaotic and changing by the hour, while the government was faced with the urgent task of securing emergency equipment so as to save doctors from having to ration ventilator treatment.

Once again denying having preferred particular suppliers, he said it was necessary to accelerate things at the agency, which is used to working in a "peacetime pace" that if not sped up would mean ventilators would not be delivered before Christmas.

Jelka Godec, a state secretary at the prime minister's office who was involved in helping the Commodities Reserves Agency secure the equipment, defended the government's decision to get the equipment through intermediaries.

She said China had centralised procurement on 16 March and no single official had been able to directly arrange the purchase of protective masks.

Tarča further reported being contacted with multiple suppliers of protective masks who sent offers at lower prices than those offered by selected providers. Some never even heard back.

Defence Minister Matej Tonin said the government task force that reviewed these offers had gone through 80 offers per day, anything more than that was not physically possible. Quizzed about the assessment criteria, he said bids with the shortest delivery times were prioritised.

Tonin also challenged Gale the whistleblower to say whether he or his mother had intervened in any way for the selection of Acron, a company in which Tonin mother works and which won several contracts for the supply of masks. Gale said there had been no pressure from them.

Gale has become a tentpole of anti-government sentiment since he came out with his accusations last week and he told Tarča yesterday he stood by his decision to go public and with his claim that certain providers had been favoured.

Počivalšek however wondered by Gale, standing in for director Anton Zakrajšek, had signed all those contracts if he thought they were not alright. Gale retorted that all contracts had been equipped with the ministry's approval and most had anyway been signed by Zakrajšek.

Overall, Gale said his motivation to go public was not to put anyone in jail, it was to "put an end to this kind of politics".

Related: Slovenian Govt Engulfed in PPE Procurement Scandal

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