Covid-19: Unusable PPE worth £4bn will be burned, says spending watchdogBMJ 2022; 377 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o1435 (Published 10 June 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o1435
The parliamentary watchdog on public spending has accused the Department of Health and Social Care for England of wasting £4bn of taxpayers’ money on unusable personal protective equipment in the first year of the covid-19 pandemic and of planning to burn much of it to “generate power.”1
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee made the claim in its report on the Department of Health and Social Care’s accounts for 2020-21, the first year of the pandemic.
The report paints a damning picture of the fallout from the government’s rush to compete with the rest of the world to procure PPE, bypassing the usual due diligence in its race to secure supplies. Of £12bn spent on PPE, £4bn was spent on items that failed to meet NHS standards and have remained unused, the report said.
The committee claimed that the department now faces the costs of getting rid of millions of unusable items and has appointed two commercial waste companies to dispose of 15 000 pallets a month through a combination of burning and recycling. The costs and environmental effects are “unclear” the report noted.
The committee said the department lost 75% of the £12bn spent on PPE to inflated prices and kit that did not meet requirements, including the £4bn worth that will not be used in the NHS and will have to be disposed of.
“The story of PPE purchasing is perhaps the most shameful episode in the UK government response to the pandemic,” said Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair. “At the start of the pandemic health service and social service staff were left to risk their own and their families’ lives due to the lack of basic PPE.
“In a desperate bid to catch up, the government splurged huge amounts of money, paying obscenely inflated prices and payments to middlemen in a chaotic rush during which they chucked out even the most cursory due diligence.”
Using emergency provisions for awarding contracts without competitive tender, the government set up a “VIP” priority lane for leads from civil servants, ministers’ offices, MPs and the House of Lords, later ruled unlawful by the High Court.23 The lane did not include organisations in the health and social care sector that had existing relationships with suppliers, and the committee said a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money went to new suppliers, including those with no previous experience of supplying certain types of products.
As a result of the department’s “haphazard purchasing strategy,” 25% of the PPE contracts are now in dispute, the committee said. One was for 3.5 billion gloves where there are allegations against the manufacturer of modern slavery.
The department accused the committee of making “inaccurate” and “misleading” claims. A department spokesperson said it was “inaccurate to suggest that £8.7bn of PPE was written off.”
The spokesperson added, “The majority of the £8.7bn figure reflects that the government bought in a globally inflated market. It was better to do that than risk running out of PPE and endangering lives. Our published accounts show only around 3% of PPE the department has purchased—equivalent to around £670m—cannot be used because it is not fit for any purpose.”
The committee claimed that the department spent £1.3bn without the required Treasury approval. The department spokesperson said, “The pace and volume of activity meant that in a limited number of instances it only became apparent after the spend had been incurred that the department should have sought formal approval in advance,” but added that “processes had been revised to prevent a future recurrence.”
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