Converting to reusable personal protective equipment (PPE) could bring £180m of procurement savings a year, the House of Lords heard.
Lord Nicholas Markham, parliamentary under-secretary of state for Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the government was trialling reusable PPE to address stockpiling and sustainability issues.
Speaking in a debate in the House of Lords on washable PPE, Markham said the NHS has piloted reusable gowns and face masks, and said NHS England will publish a waste strategy later this year.
Markham said: “The trials have shown that this is something we should be doing. It has shown big savings —about £180m a year in procurement—so there is a very good case to do it. As ever, it is non-trivial. To begin with, we have a lot of PPE stock which we clearly need to use first, and we would need to put launderettes in place so that we can clean and recycle the PPE, but this is absolutely something we want to do going forward.”
He added: “The NHS is committed to sustainability and net zero across its operations and is working with UK manufacturers to encourage innovation.”
PPE has become a source of scandal for the government, with politicians implicated in wrongdoing in the awarding of contracts, billions spent on defective and unusable items, and high costs to store excess inventory.
Markham said government contracts for single-use PPE were in place until next year, and the government would use up excess stocks before converting to reusable items. Once contracts are up for tender, “we should push this agenda”, he said.
An effective procurement strategy should come alongside education and training.
“A process of education also needs to happen. It has been shown that up to 50% of uses of disposable gloves are unnecessary,” he said. “A one-hour course can reduce disposable-glove usage by as much as 50%.”
Looking forward, Markham said localising supply chains would build resilience into the NHS, and “the beauty” of localisation was it also contributes to sustainability goals.
“We need to build resilience in the supply chain. A lot of that involves promoting domestic production. Through [the pandemic], over 4bn items were bought from the UK. We must ensure that we keep that capability going forward.”
He said the NHS must “get the balance right” between how much it stockpiles in cases of emergencies, and “future resilience” should not come with “excess levels”.
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