What lessons have been learnt on PPE procurement?

15 December 2020

Falling back on old NHS purchasing habits following the Covid pandemic would “be a big loss”, MPs have been told. 

Gareth Rhys Williams, government chief commercial officer in the Cabinet Office, told MPs in the early months of the pandemic, many NHS trusts were buying for themselves and competing against each other in a “chaotic PPE market”.

Speaking at an evidence session for the Public Accounts Committee on the government’s handling of PPE procurement, he said: “One of the lessons is... central procurement, when it works, really works very well. We’ve got ourselves to that situation now and to let that fall back to where we were would be a big loss. 

“It needs to be properly governed and owned by the NHS. But one of the things we wished we would have had in February and March would have been a robust and mature central procurement system that was already set up and already accepted by the trusts and unfortunately that was not the starting point we had.”

Rhys Williams told MPs that a number of things had gone well in the process of procuring “vast amounts of PPE very quickly from a standing start”. 

At its height, nearly 730 colleagues from across the government were drafted in to support efforts to support the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the NHS to procure PPE, he said. 

“I think that talks really to the strength of the commercial function that colleagues have helped build up over the last two years. We were able to move at speed,” he said.

However, he acknowledged there were some lessons that needed to be taken from the procurement of PPE, “particularly relating to transparency”.

“It has taken us too long to publish the contract award notices. We're now up to date on PPE, we're up to date everywhere in DHSC, apart from Test and Trace where we've still got some work to do. It did take us too long. No question we need to work on how we get faster than that.”

Rhys Williams also discussed the report by the National Audit Office that revealed there had been a “priority list” established for potential leads referred by ministers’ offices, MPs and lords, senior NHS staff and health professionals.

“We should have documented better how and why people moved on to that list... We were desperate to buy from anybody so it was a priority handling mechanism rather than a 'you will get a contract and you won't get a contract',” he said. 

He added while the NAO found that 10% of the contracts were let to people on that list “90% weren’t”. 

“That really underscores the rigour of the system that we put in despite the fact we rapidly put together so many people all in one place, of different systems, from different departments. We put in place this eight stage process, which I think has proved really very rigorous and the fact that we achieved so much volume at such a small percentage 0.5% of the product proving unworkable is really astonishing. 

“Of course, given the magnitude of what we're buying, 0.5% is still a very large pounds number, but as a percentage failure rate, it's quite astonishing.”

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