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Frontline workers left “risking lives to provide treatment and care”

10 February 2021

  • "Inadequate" pandemic plan - and equipment stockpile  - left frontline workers "risking their own and their families' lives to provide treatment and care"
  • Lack of transparency in letting multi-million pound contracts "undermines public trust in government procurement and the use of taxpayers' money"
  • DHSC "wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on PPE which is of poor quality and cannot be used for the intended purpose"

The Department for Health and Social Care's decision to prioritise hospitals at the beginning of the pandemic meant social care providers were left exposed by lack of PPE, says the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in its first report on PPE procurement published today.

The Committee highlights the appalling situation of staff having to care for people with COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 without sufficient PPE to protect themselves from infection.

Government's failure to be transparent about its buying decisions in the pandemic  - publish contracts in a timely manner, maintain proper records of key decisions - has "left it open to accusations of poor value for money, conflicts of interest and preferential treatment of some suppliers".

Government made extensive use of emergency procurement regulations to procure more than £10 billion of goods and services without competition. While government had plans and a stockpile of PPE, these proved inadequate for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Between February and July 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spent over £12 billion on 32 billion items of PPE.  It has so far identified items worth hundreds of millions of pounds which are unusable for their intended purpose, at further risk to taxpayers’ money. 

At each stage DHSC maintains that no setting actually ran out of PPE. But the Committee heard compelling evidence from organisations representing front-line workers that stocks ran perilously low; single use items were reused; some was not fit for purpose  - including reports of expired, substandard, deficient or even insect-infested supplies - and staff were in fear that they would run out.

  • Surveys by staff representative organisations showed at least 30% of participating care workers, doctors and nurses reported having insufficient PPE, even in high-risk settings.
  • The PPE from central government was sometimes not usable and providers told the Committee that emergency helplines referred them to suppliers which did not have PPE.
  • The "high-priority lane" for companies offering to fulfil covid contracts "was not designed well enough to be a wholly effective way of sifting credible leads to supply PPE".
  • Market price increases alone cost £10bn, as providers tried to buy PPE at short notice in an "overheated" international market, finding they "needed to pay hugely inflated prices to suppliers they were unfamiliar with".

The government also had to procure a wide range of other goods and services quickly during this time. By 31 July 2020, the Government had awarded over 8,000 contracts in its Covid response, with a value of £18 billion. 

The Committee says now DHSC has ordered an "enormous amount of PPE", with no assurance it will be fit for future purpose but concerns that it might compromise government’s ambition to maintain a UK manufacturing base.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Committee, said:

"Government had permission to procure equipment at pace and without tendering under the law, but acting fast did not give it license to rip up record keeping on decisions. It did not publish contracts in time and kept poor records of why some companies won multi-million pound contracts. The cost of emergency procurement - £billions higher than the equivalent a year before - highlights how both its pandemic plan and supply of essential equipment were inadequate.

Frontline workers were left without adequate supplies, risking their own and their families’ lives to provide treatment and care. We’re at a dangerous new phase of the pandemic, in our third national lockdown with no defined end in sight. The government needs to acknowledge the errors and be better prepared."

Further information

Image: DFID flickr