Protective clothing worth £4bn bought early in the pandemic to stop NHS staff being infected with Covid is to be burned because it is unusable, a report has revealed.
The imminent destruction of so many items and waste of public money is disclosed in a report by the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) that is scathing of the DHSC’s strategy when the Covid pandemic struck in 2020.
The PAC, which oversees spending by Whitehall departments, found that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has £4bn of PPE in storage which cannot be used by frontline workers because it is substandard.
In their report out on Friday, the cross-party group of MPs said: “The department has no clear disposal strategy for this excess PPE but told us that it plans to burn significant volumes and will aim to generate power from this.”
The DHSC has so much unneeded PPE that it has appointed two commercial waste firms to help it dispose of 15,000 pallets a month “via a combination of recycling and burning to generate power”.
Opposition parties have seized on the PAC’s findings. “This absolutely damning report exposes the shameful and toxic waste of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. Ministers have been carelessly burning taxpayers’ money by the billion as unusable gowns, goggles and gloves literally go up in smoke,” said Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader.
Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, said: “Hard-working families, who are struggling to make ends meet, will be outraged that the Conservatives have squandered their money for no other reason than their sheer incompetence.”
The revelations are the latest evidence about the government’s chaotic rush to acquire gloves, masks and gowns in the early months of the pandemic amid a sudden global shortage. It has become a major scandal over the government’s use of a “VIP lane” offering privileged access to well-connected people seeking to bid for contracts and the handing of multiple deals to friends and associates of ministers and other senior Conservatives.
“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,” said Dame Meg Hillier, the PAC chair.
“This has left us with massive public contracts now under investigation by the National Crime Agency or in dispute because of allegations of modern slavery in the supply chain.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of council at the British Medical Association, said: “The deadly mismanagement around the supply of PPE is one of the greatest failings of this Government’s handling of the pandemic.”
A DHSC review of the 364 PPE contracts it signed found that 176 (48%) were questionable. Of those, 24% are under commercial renegotiation (59), legal review (27) or in mediation (three). The PAC criticised the department’s “haphazard purchasing strategy”.
Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the revelations were “galling [and] a painful reminder of the worst of the pandemic – inadequate or wasteful PPE”.
Cullen and Rayner urged the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic to fully investigate why the acquisition of so much PPE was so flawed.
The DHSC disputed some of the PAC’s key findings. A spokesperson said: “A number of these claims are misleading, including the claims that we are burning £4bn of unusable PPE and that there is no clear disposal strategy for excess PPE.
“In the face of an unpredictable and dangerous virus, we make no apology for procuring too much PPE rather than too little, and only 3% of the PPE we procured was unusable in any context.”