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UK's 'chaotic' PPE procurement cost billions extra

David Conn
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

The government spent £10bn more buying personal protective equipment in “chaotic” and inflated market conditions during the pandemic than it would have paid for the same products last year, according to a report by the parliamentary spending watchdog.

But less than 10% of the gloves, gowns, face masks and other products – ordered for a total £12.5bn – had been delivered to NHS trusts and other frontline organisations by the end of July, the National Audit Office (NAO) report found.

Of 32bn items ordered at exponentially rising prices, 2.6bn had been distributed by July. The controversial “parallel supply chain”, rapidly set up by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in March, has still not received much of the PPE it ordered, the report said, “with some of it not yet manufactured”.

According to the NAO, the stockpile was “inadequate” before the pandemic, containing only two weeks’ worth of PPE but the health department then dramatically over-ordered, it was suggested, with the 32bn items amounting to five years’ worth of supply.

Setting out comparative costs for the equipment, the NAO said 760m gowns and coveralls, which would have cost 33p each last year, were bought for £4.50 each, an increase of 1,277%. One million body bags that would have cost £1 each last year were bought for £14.10, with millions of gloves, face masks, goggles and sanitiser also bought at inflated costs.

“The department had to pay such high prices because it was in the position of needing to buy huge volumes of PPE very quickly,” the report said. The total cost of all 32bn items at 2019 prices would have been £2.5bn, £10bn less than the government paid.

The report follows NAO revelations that the DHSC operated a “high priority” route for PPE suppliers with political connections, where bids for multimillion-pound contracts were 10 times more likely to be successful. Competitive tenders were suspended in the emergency.

NHS organisations told the watchdog that they had been able to get the PPE they needed in time, but the report contrasts that assurance with health and social care workers who told their professional bodies and unions that they suffered shortages of vital PPE.

Adult social care providers felt they were “not adequately supported by government in obtaining PPE”, receiving only 10% of their estimated need from the government between March and July, while NHS trusts received 80% of their estimated need.

Office for National Statistics figures show 612 deaths of health and social care workers involving Covid-19 were registered between 9 March and 12 October in England.

The NAO calls for the government to hold a “comprehensive lessons-learned exercise” to consider whether “any issues with PPE provision or use might have contributed to Covid-19 infections or deaths” and to inform planning for future emergencies.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, whose members include relatives of health and social care workers who died after complaining of PPE shortages, has repeatedly called for a rapid public inquiry.

Jo Goodman, the group’s co-founder, said: “The fact that some of our NHS heroes have been lost due to the government’s failure to adequately supply them with PPE is yet another national disgrace which can only really be truly understood with an urgent public inquiry. It is not too late to learn the lessons from the first wave of the pandemic and save lives.”

Related: ‘I don't like acts of dishonesty by the state’: Jolyon Maugham QC on Covid cronyism

Jolyon Maugham QC, founder of the Good Law Project which is challenging the government’s procurement processes and several individual contracts, said of the report: “It shows there has been an obscene waste of public money. This was the worst of all worlds, where the government paid five times the normal price, but bought five years’ worth of supply, most of which will never be used. Most striking in the NAO report is the question they don’t answer: why the government procured 32 billion items of PPE in a period in which they only distributed 2.6 billion.”

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 5 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.”