Chief of Police Erik Akerboom needs some time to think on March 15, 2020. On the day the cabinet locks the Netherlands for the first time due to the advancing corona virus, he sends a letter to the company Intersafe in Dordrecht. Topic: “Urgent handing over of police masks.”
There is now an urgent need for face masks, not only in hospitals, the Dutch police force also urgently needs them, Akerboom explains in the letter. NRC Viewed. The police chief does not intend to intervene alone in the sudden emergence of the market for mouth caps. Akerboom prefers to buy them from a party that he considers reliable. Due to the worldwide shortage and sharply rising prices, all kinds of cowboys have thrown themselves into the import of mouthpieces from China. The police should preferably not find out for themselves who offers reliable products.
Because Intersafe has been providing hearing and eye protection to the police since 2019, Akerboom is now also knocking on the door of the Dordrecht company. Can the company that advertises itself as a “total specialist in personal protective equipment” provide masks to the police in the short term?
In the next two and a half months, Intersafe will supply more than three million face masks to the Dutch police, according to investigations conducted by the NRC. The police pay a total of 12.2 million euros for this – on average more than 4 euros each. According to experts, it is well above the prevailing market price at the time. There is still a lot of money hanging on the bow at the mouthpiece suppliers. It is not only Intersafe that makes a profit, the company that supplies most of the caps to Intersafe – a fishmonger from Rotterdam – also has millions left over from the trade.
‘Reasonable panic football’
After a corona infection was first detected in the Netherlands on 27 February 2020, the police spoke of “reasonable panic football”, says Jan Struijs, chairman of the police association NPB. “Our employees had to move among the people, had contact with detainees. They therefore quickly asked for a mouthpiece. It was very urgent. ”
From mid-March, the guideline is that police cars must be provided with a sealing bag with protective equipment, including mouth caps. The corps management also wants to give each employee more copies at each service, a spokesman said. With 63,000 employees, that would equate to about 500,000 required mouthpieces a month. By no means do all agents use the masks during the first months of corona. According to Struijs from the police union, some of the police officers see them as an obstacle in communication with colleagues or in contact with citizens. It is not mandatory to wear a mouthpiece as standard.
At Intersafe, the request to supply face masks to the police does not come as a complete surprise. The company has been selling mouthpieces for years, especially in the pre-corona industry. And the police were already customers. But it poses a challenge for buyers in Dordrecht. The stocks available in the Netherlands almost always go directly to the health service. Countries such as France and Germany do not temporarily export mouth masks. Purchasing from well-known manufacturers in China is also difficult: Demand has exploded, Western commercial agents are stealing lots of masks from each other at Chinese airports.
The issue has exploded, Western commercial agents hijacking batches of masks from each other’s noses at Chinese airports
“We then went with a large team to see: How can we get them in as quickly as possible?”, Says Oscar Breure, Purchasing Manager at Intersafe. “We received a lot of offers, of which about 90 percent rejected. In many cases, the certificates were incorrect. We eventually came in contact with a number of importers who could guarantee air freight from China. ”
Fish factory in Gambia
One of these parties is Network Seafood from Rotterdam. For founders Robin van Eenennaam and Michel Huijser, the corona outbreak is a slap in the face. Since 2003, they have operated a fish factory in the West African country of Gambia, from where they export sole, sepia, squid and shrimp to Europe, usually around 26 tonnes a day.
But because of the corona, trade has suddenly stalled. Important sales markets such as Spain and Italy are locked. Due to a lockdown in Gambia, the 250 employees can no longer come to the factory. They were forced to temporarily close the business. This immediately jeopardizes the company’s survival: at the end of 2019, the books had a negative equity of 3 million euros.
To prevent a further decline, the duo is focusing on a new business: mouth caps. “At first we were busy with sales to China, from March the demand came from Europe. Then we rolled on, “Huijser explains over the phone.
On March 19, 2020, they received the first order from the Dutch police, according to documents in the hands of the NRC. To begin with, they have to supply 255,000 mouthpieces. The first 55,000 units will fly from Hong Kong to Schiphol as soon as possible. These are FFP2 face masks: white dust masks that filter at least 95 percent of the air particles.
According to the documents of the Dutch police, the cap ends up through three intermediaries. Network Seafood is not a formal importer of caps. It’s another Rotterdam entrepreneur: Ronald van der Boor, founder of the trading company Calceus. He buys the masks from the factory in China, takes care of the transport and also the customs clearance at Schiphol. Once in the Netherlands, Network Seafood takes over the masks and sells them on to Intersafe, which then hands them over to the police.
Also read: Crucial questions about face masks remain unanswered
Police pay 6.76 euros each for the first shipment of masks, according to the documents. According to three experienced importers, it is well above the current market price. “Prices were obviously high at the time. But even in the peak period up to mid-April 2020, a price of 2.87 euros per. ceiling plain. This included transportation, “said Hans Poulis of IGC International, which provided two million capes to the Dutch government in the first corona wave. According to Tim Haaksma from the import company Avanca, the price of FFP2 masks can sometimes rise to 4 euros in March 2020, but anything above that can be called “exorbitant”. Also, according to Intersafe’s own guidelines, an FFP2 mask cost no more than 4.20 euros on top, according to an internal document.
Purmerend entrepreneur Hans Dorrestijn, who with his company supplied 4.6 million mouth masks to the German government: “Even in the initial phase, it’s way too expensive. Those caps were really cheaper back then.” Dorrestijn itself made an offer on March 23, 2020 to supply 500,000 or more certified KN95 type face masks (the Chinese equivalent of FFP2) to the police, according to an email seen by the NRC. Its price: 1.67 euros each, including transport. Police are leaving his offer unanswered, Dorrestijn said.
Maximum 2.50 euros
From the beginning of April 2020, the prices of face masks will start to fall rapidly as production and imports from China pick up speed. In early April, the National Aids Consortium (LCH) – established by the Ministry of Health to centrally regulate the purchase of protective equipment – applies a maximum price of 3.09 EUR per. FFP2 mouth cap. In the second half of that month, the maximum has already dropped to 2.50 euros per oral cavity, LCH director Rob van der Kolk later told the radio program For tomorrow†
Despite this, the police procurement department, which does not cooperate with LCH, continues to pay much higher prices in April and May. From May 2020, the organization will pay between 5.17 and 5.99 euros for 700,000 masks of the type FFP2 and KN95 according to a purchase overview. “It’s really exorbitant quantities,” says importer Poulis. Entrepreneurial colleague Dorrestijn: “From the crazy, just bizarre. A number of people must have filled their pockets with this incredible. “
A lot of people must have filled their pockets with it
The two entrepreneurs behind Network Seafood will already in May 2020 pay themselves a dividend of 2.2 million euros, according to internal documents. In total, they deliver 1.6 million mouthpieces via Intersafe, which the police on average pay more than 5 euros for each. Intersafe also benefits from the resale of the mouth caps. In 2020, the company will register a total revenue growth of 15 million euros. According to the annual report, it was “mainly driven by the increased sales volume of personal protective equipment in the Netherlands”. As a result, the operating profit was 1.4 million euros higher. A spokesman for Intersafe will not say to what extent this amount can be attributed to the deal with the police.
When asked, a spokesman for the police said that the police did not conduct their own investigation into the market prices of face masks. According to the spokesman, the police had the impression that the bandwidth of the price of mouth caps was 3 to 5 euros. According to him, Intersafe received a maximum amount of 5 euros each. That the limit was exceeded for a large number of mouth caps was not a problem, according to the spokesman, because the average price of 4 euros each fell within the bandwidth.
More than half of the three million stitches remained unused. At present, there are still 1.7 million mouthpieces in stock, police spokesman confirms. According to him, it was a deliberate policy to continue buying in on a large scale: the corps leadership wanted to build up a stock of 1.5 million copies during the first corona wave so that the entire force would be supplied for three months.
But what also plays a role is that the supplied types of FFP2 and KN95 – the white dust masks – according to the corps management were not so suitable to wear all day. From June 2020, therefore, the police first switched to blue surgical capes and later to fabric.
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on June 11, 2022