Workers were left to risk their lives as pandemic began because of low PPE stockpiles, report finds

'Government needs to acknowledge the errors and be better prepared,’ says Labour MP

Kate Devlin
Whitehall Editor
Wednesday 10 February 2021 07:30
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What is PPE?

Frontline workers were left to risk their lives and those of their families because of an inadequate stockpile of personal protective equipment at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a damning new report has found.

The government also prioritised hospitals in the early days of the crisis, leaving social care staff more exposed to the problem, the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.

A subsequent scramble to source PPE has also led to hundreds of millions of pounds being wasted on poor-quality equipment that cannot be used for its intended purpose.

Meg Hillier, chairman of the PAC, said: “The cost of emergency procurement – billions of pounds higher than the equivalent a year before – highlights how both (the government’s) pandemic plan and supply of essential equipment were inadequate.”

She added: “Frontline workers were left without adequate supplies, risking their own and their families’ lives to provide treatment and care. We’re at a dangerous new phase of the pandemic, in our third national lockdown, with no defined end in sight. The government needs to acknowledge the errors and be better prepared.”

The PPE scandal dominated discussions about government handling of the pandemic in its early days.

At one point, the shortage of long-sleeved gowns was so stark that nursing leaders told staff without suitable PPE they could refuse to treat patients.

In mid-April Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was also forced to admit he could not guarantee hospitals would have enough PPE to see them through the next few days.

The Department of Health and Social Care has always insisted that no “setting” ran out of PPE.

But MPs said they had heard “compelling” evidence from organisations representing frontline staff that stocks ran perilously low and that single-use items had to be reused.

There was some expired, substandard, broken and even insect-infested supplies.

The report points to surveys that showed at least 30 per cent of care workers, nurses and doctors who took part reported insufficient PPE, even in high-risk settings.

To make matters worse, emergency helplines referred desperate staff to suppliers that did not have PPE.  

The report says the stockpile held “no more than two weeks’ worth of most types of PPE”.

It also criticises the controversial “high-priority lane” for some companies, which has been accused of being a channel for Conservative cronies.

MPs said the route was “was not designed well enough to be a wholly effective way of sifting credible leads”.

Organisations not given access to the lane included the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of Nursing, despite the knowledge base of their members.

Between February and July 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care spent more than £12bn on 32 billion items of PPE. 

However, since then it has identified hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of items that cannot be used for their intended purpose, the report warns.

Dame Donna Kinnair, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said nursing staff working in hospitals, community and care homes “are still being denied adequate PPE. Trusts and employers should not be forced into setting their own rules to protect their staff because the government guidance is unclear.

 “The government must now ensure all nursing staff, wherever they work, have the highest level of protection so they never again are forced to work while putting themselves at risk.”

Christina McAnea, the general secretary of the health union Unison, said: “In the rush to protect the NHS, ministers forgot about social care. Staff were left without the PPE they needed, with deadly consequences. 

“Care workers were forced make their own safety kit, buy it themselves or go without, putting themselves, their families and the people they looked after at huge risk. The distress and fear this caused cannot be overstated. 

“The PAC makes clear many lives were lost because of government failings. There must be a public inquiry to hold those found lacking accountable for their inaction and learn lessons.” 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said:“We have been working tirelessly to procure, produce and deliver PPE to over 58,000 settings, protecting our health and social care staff on the frontline of this pandemic.“

"As the Public Accounts Committee recognises, the government faced significant challenges in having to rapidly procure PPE at pace in a competitive international market. Thanks to the combined effort of government, NHS, Armed Forces, civil servants and industry we have delivered over 8.1 billion items of PPE at record speed.

“We have a robust processes in place to ensure PPE meets the strictest safety and quality standards before being distributed to the frontline.”

Almost a million extremely clinically vulnerable people had to wait weeks to be told they should be shielding at the start of the pandemic, a report by the National Audit Office has found.

At the start of the pandemic there was no way to quickly identify all everyone affected, and the full list of those eligible for government support did not stabilise until May, the spending watchdog found.

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the government “must learn the lessons” of the report.

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