Hundreds of millions spent on 'potentially unsuitable' PPE

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
25 November 2020

Around 1% of PPE bought by the UK government in response to the coronavirus pandemic was unsuitable, according to a report by the National Audit Office.

In the report the NAO said the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) had identified 195m items that were “potentially unsuitable” and this would “amount to hundreds of millions of pounds”.

“However, [DHSC] has not provided us with sufficient information to be able to verify these figures because, it told us, this would compromise its ability to resell the PPE,” said the NAO.

The NAO said it had identified two contracts, worth £214m, in which PPE would not be used for its original purpose because masks had ear loops rather than the required head straps. One £59m contract was with Pestfix, in which the issue was discovered after 600,000 masks had been delivered, and the other was with Ayanda Capital, which was contracted to deliver 50m masks for £155m.

“The problem of ear-loops on FFP2 respirator masks is likely to apply to tens of millions of similar masks from other suppliers,” said the report. “Most other types of PPE have also had some problems with compliance with technical standards.”

The NAO said DHSC spent £12.5bn on 32bn items of PPE between February and July 2020.

The report said prices for PPE spiked at the beginning of the outbreak compared to 2019, including a 166% rise in respirator mask prices and a 1,310% increase for body bags. Had the government bought its PPE at 2019 prices the cost would have totalled £2.5bn, £10bn less than it actually paid.

The NAO said in late March the Parallel Supply Chain was created after it became clear NHS Supply Chain’s stockpiles were “insufficient” and because of the “inability of the existing NHS Supply Chain infrastructure and processes to meet increased demand”.

Through the Parallel Supply Chain, which included the “high-priority lane” for suppliers referred by politicians and officials, 322 contracts worth £8bn were awarded between March and July 2020.

The report said NHS Supply Chain warehouse staff were “overwhelmed” when orders rocketed in February, in part because stock was stored in a “deep storage” warehouse, rather broken down into smaller packages at distribution centres for faster shipments. Some stock had passed its expiry date or did not meet current standards and “there had been insufficient checks on PPE in the stockpile”. A legacy IT system could not be reconfigured to new ways of working, which meant new warehouses could not be added to the system.

The report said surveys showed at least 30% of care workers, doctors and nurses reported having insufficient PPE, while 126 deaths and 8,152 cases of Covid had been reported among health and care workers with a link to occupational exposure.

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