COVID-19: UK spent extra £10bn on PPE due to ‘inadequate supply’, report finds

COVID-19: UK spent extra £10bn on PPE due to ‘inadequate supply’, report finds

The UK spent an extra £10bn on PPE at inflated prices at the start of the pandemic because it had an “inadequate” stockpile, a report has found. 

Reserves of personal protective equipment for frontline workers were intended for a flu-style pandemic and did not include some items necessary to protect against COVID-19, meaning ministers had to scramble to buy up stocks as prices ballooned, the National Audit Office (NAO) report said.

Opposition MPs have accused the government’s pandemic plans of being “fixated” on a flu-style virus and said the COVID-19 outbreak had “caught the NHS on the wrong foot”.

However, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the majority of PPE was fit for purpose and only 0.49% of equipment was not adequate to protect against COVID-19.

Procurement chiefs were forced to pay “very high prices” for some items compared with 2019 as costs soared at the start of the pandemic, according to the NAO.

Respirator masks rose in price by 166%, while the cost of body bags increased by 1,310%.

The NAO concluded that if the equipment had been bought at 2019 prices, expenditure up until July this year on PPE would have been £2.5bn – some £10bn less than the UK paid.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said ministers were “far too slow” to respond to the pandemic.

“The national stockpile was nowhere near big enough for a coronavirus outbreak – a consequence of the pandemic plans’ fixation on influenza,” the Labour MP said.

“The government was far too slow to recognise how precarious the position was. When the penny finally dropped, DHSC had to scramble to buy what was left as prices went through the roof.”

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The last-ditch efforts to secure supplies also meant the gear did not arrive in time for the first wave.

Of the 32 billion items of PPE ordered between February and July, only 2.6 billion were delivered to frontline organisations in that period.

In April and May, demand was so high that stock levels were negligible for most types of PPE.

The situation had improved by the end of September, and this month there will be a stockpile of four months’ worth of equipment.

NHS provider organisations said they were always able to get what they needed in time, but surveys of care workers, doctors and nurses showed significant numbers believed they did not have access to the PPE they needed.

Four employers reported 126 deaths and 8,152 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among health and care workers linked to their jobs.

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Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “This report confirms that frontline workers didn’t have access to adequate PPE early on in the pandemic, putting them at unnecessary risk.

“There is no doubt that a significant reason for the shortage was the government’s failure to prepare properly and take on board warnings about PPE stockpiles.”

Health minister Jo Churchill said: “As the NAO report recognises, during this unprecedented pandemic all the NHS providers audited ‘were always able to get what they needed in time’ thanks to the herculean effort of government, NHS, Armed Forces, civil servants and industry who delivered around five billion items of PPE to the frontline at record speed.

“We set up robust and resilient supply chains from scratch and expanded our distribution network from 226 NHS trusts to over 58,000 health and care settings.

“With almost 32 billion items of PPE ordered we are confident we can provide a continuous supply to our amazing frontline workers over the coming months and respond to future eventualities.”

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