An “inadequate” stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) meant the UK government was forced to overpay by £10bn ($13.13bn) for items like masks and gowns as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
A scramble to secure PPE for frontline staff also led the government to waste hundreds of millions of pounds on equipment that was not up to standard.
The findings come in a critical new report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which found the government’s PPE stockpile and supply chain were underprepared and overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Department and its partners deserve some credit for building at pace a new international supply chain and distribution network,” NAO wrote in the report, published on Wednesday. “But there are important aspects that could and should have been done much better in supplying PPE.”
A key finding of the report is that an emergency PPE stockpile built up the government prior to the pandemic was understocked. The stockpile had just two weeks or less worth of key items and didn’t include gowns.
“Government’s stockpiles of PPE were intended for an influenza pandemic and they were inadequate for a coronavirus pandemic,” the report said.
With the stockpile lacking, the government turned to the NHS supply chain to source additional equipment but this too was found lacking. The PPE supply chain built by the government was maximised for cost saving and not prepared for a pandemic, NAO said.
With the traditional NHS supply chain overwhelmed, the Department of Health set up a “parallel supply chain.”
The Department of Health spent £12.5bn on 32bn PPE items between February and July 2020. The NAO estimates costs were inflated by as much as £10bn due to “an extremely overheated global market” where “desperate customers [where] competing against each other, pushing up prices.”
In a case recently unearthed by the BBC, a Spanish jewellery designer and businessman was paid £21m for acting as a go-between to help the government source PPE equipment.
The rush to source equipment also led to huge waste of public money. In one case, 75m respirator masks ordered for £214m were later found to be not up to specification.
“Processes were designed to enable rapid procurement, but this meant that some PPE was procured that did not meet requirements, wasting hundreds of millions of pounds,” NAO said of the parallel supply chain.
The NAO said the government must learn lessons from the failures in preparedness.
Inflated prices and wasted public cash could have been avoided if PPE stockpiles were more adequately managed prior to the pandemic.
Wednesday’s report marks the second critical publication from NAO in as many weeks. Last week the NAO slammed the government for its secrecy around procurements and public contracts during the early stages of the pandemic.