Poland’s health minister has denied accusations of cronyism, after a newspaper uncovered evidence showing that his department had purchase over 100,000 masks from a family friend, but which turned out to be “useless”.

The ministry has notified prosecutors of a potential crime regarding the supply of the defective goods, but the opposition are asking why it took weeks (and media attention on the issue) for them to do so.

On Tuesday, Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s largest daily newspapers, reported that the masks were bought in March for around 5 million zloty through a family friend of Szumowski, ski instructor Łukasz G. (surname withheld under Poland’s privacy law).

The newspaper claims that the transaction was facilitated by Szumowski’s brother, Marcin, a businessman in the pharmaceuticals sector, who gave Łukasz G. the contact details for deputy health minister Janusz Cieszyński in order to arrange the purchase.

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Gazeta Wyborcza said it had acquired text messages and recordings implicating the Szumowski brothers in the purchase of the masks. It published photos of messages sent to Łukasz G, with the sender’s name displayed as “Marcin Szumowski”, and claimed that its findings were supported by admissions from Cieszyński and the Szumowski brothers.

At the beginning of May, the Central Institute for Labour Protection revealed that the masks did not meet the stipulated sanitary standards. The minister responded by confirming the low quality of the masks, and requesting an exchange of goods. A day after the scandal had been revealed, the ministry notified the prosecutor’s office of a potential crime.

Responding to Gazeta Wyborcza’s claims, Cieszyński confirmed that the transaction had taken place, but denied accusation that Łukasz G was selected as a supplier thanks to his close connections with Szumowski. “The businessman, like many others, presented an offer of cooperation to the Ministry of Health,” Cieszyński told the newspaper.

“All offers are subject to verification in terms of demand for a given product, as well as price conditions and delivery date. Neither minister Łukasz Szumowski, nor the minister’s brother, gave any recommendations to the indicated businessman,” he added.

The health minister also rejected the allegations. He told RadioZET that “half” of the report was “fake news”. “Nobody made it easy for anyone. We treat every transaction in the same way. We have over a thousand contractors, we direct everyone to one transparent path,” he explained.

The prime minister has backed Szumowski, saying he has his “full support” in the face of “ruthless attacks from the media”, reports Polskie Radio. According to state broadcaster TVP, Morawiecki also said that with the rush to purchase personal protective equipment in March, it was “not always possible to check very carefully the reliability of each contractor”.

In discussing the case, Szumowski also noted that 600,000 masks received by Poland from the EU were also revealed to be substandard, and so could not be distributed, reports Onet. The European Commission this week suspended the delivery of 10 million Chinese-made masks after Poland noted that they did not have European safety certificates and failed to comply with the medical standards.

Meanwhile, the opposition have questioned why the masks were not checked for weeks, with MP Adam Szłapka suggesting that this only took place after the media raised doubts about the quality. They have also called for more information on the use of public funds in the purchase of the defective masks, according to Onet.

On Thursday, Cieszyński denied that there had been delays in conducting quality tests. Meanwhile, Łukasz Schreiber, a government minister, claimed that the opposition are simply using the issue to distract attention from the fact that they decided to change their presidential candidate this week.

In his role leading Poland’s response to the pandemic, Szumowski, previously not a prominent member of the government, has become the country’s most trusted politician. At the start of May, the results of a regular poll by IBRiS showed him as the only major politician in the country trusted by more than half the public.

However, there have also been concerns regarding inadequate protective equipment in Poland, with claims that the healthcare system has struggled to cope. Last month, hospitals became hot spots for the spread of infection, with official data showing that one in six of all people confirmed as being infected with COVID-19 were medical workers.

Poland’s infection rate nevertheless remains one of the lowest in Europe, and recent data show that it has actually recorded fewer deaths overall during the pandemic than in the same period in recent years. The government has now begun the process of rolling back its lockdown measures.

Number of deaths lower than normal this year in Poland despite coronavirus

Main image credits: Krystian Maj/KPRM/Flickr

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