The government won’t say whether £1.1bn of personal protective equipment (PPE) it bought to help battle Covid-19 ever reached the NHS, reigniting fury over the chaotic handling of supplies.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it could not give HuffPost UK information on any of the 10 huge PPE deals it placed in the early months of the pandemic, when the NHS faced a dreadful shortage of safety equipment.
Ministers have already faced criticism over the way large contracts were handed out under emergency laws to firms that apparently had little or no experience manufacturing PPE, leading to allegations of cronyism.
Now the department has refused to answer a Freedom of Information (FOI) request about whether the equipment from those orders ever materialised, or passed checks to reach the front line.
MP Rosie Cooper told us: “The local sweetshop has got better accounts than these.”
Cooper, who sits on the Commons’ health and social care committee, went on: “The very fact that nobody wants to talk about these contracts, everything is still shrouded in secrecy, means people are still upset about contracts for cronyism, contracts for friends or entrepreneurs.”
She added: “You can’t run a business, you can’t run a corner shop, and you certainly can’t run a country if you don’t know what’s in the till.”
Doctors’ unions have also questioned how PPE supplies can be guaranteed as pressure on the NHS intensifies if the government cannot easily monitor how much PPE it already has.
“They clearly do not have a handle on their orders and adequate audit trails or scrutiny around the distribution and its arrival – certainly not to an extent that gives us any reassurance,” said Dr Claudia Paoloni, president of hospital doctors’ union the HCSA.
A HuffPost UK investigation in August revealed that, of the 10 companies handed the highest value deals to supply PPE from March to July last year, five had no apparent record of procuring protective equipment.
We also found contracts awarded to firms listed as “dormant” on Companies House, while firms with credible bids to supply PPE at competitive prices for no profit were turned down.
Among the contracts the DHSC has failed to issue information about is one awarded to the investment firm Ayanda Capital. This £253m deal included supply of 50m masks that could not be used because they had loose ear-loop fastenings, rather than head loops.
The scale of government spending on PPE has also been colossal with £8bn of PPE contracts so far published since the start of the pandemic, according to the data provider Tussell.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders MP accused the government of “a worrying lack of transparency” and said answers were urgently needed about the outcome of these huge deals.
“To have spent over £1bn of public money and not be able to even say whether the goods have been delivered is incompetence on an intergalactic scale,” he told HuffPost UK.
Echoing his calls, Rachel Reeves MP, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “With a pandemic procurement record marred by cronyism and taxpayers paying hugely over the odds for PPE, we need urgent clarity and answers from the government on how it is going to clean up its act on contracting.”
In the FOI request, HuffPost UK asked whether the 10 huge PPE contracts awarded from March to July last year had been successfully fulfilled.
We also asked whether the PPE was tested to check if it met quality requirements and if the products supplied were in use by the NHS.
While DHSC told HuffPost UK it holds the information, the department said it was unable to hand it over because locating and retrieving it would take more than 24 hours’ working time and cost more than £600.
This exemption, known as the cost limit under the Freedom of Information Act, was given as the reason for not releasing the information publicly.
The FOI response said: “To establish the precise, accurate position of a particular contract [...] at any one point in time would require us to extract many documents for examination to provide the answer.”
Contrastingly, the DHSC was able to supply the same information in relation to 10 of the largest testing contracts it issued, which HuffPost asked about in a separate FOI request.
When asked for comment on this story, the DHSC said it had been “working tirelessly” to supply PPE to protect health and social care staff, with more than 6.7bn items of PPE so far delivered and 32bn items ordered.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Our priority is to get high quality PPE to the frontline and all PPE must undergo vigorous checks to ensure [it] meets[s] the safety and quality required.”
But both the HCSA and British Medical Association (BMA) have urgently called on the government to review recommended levels of PPE for medical staff.
“One of our biggest concerns currently is there has been no change to the PPE guidance, even back to the level that it was at in March,” said Dr Paoloni.
“The PPE guidance at that point said in instances of high transmission you should be using the elevated level 2 PPE and we haven’t had that upgraded, despite knowing that we’ve got a new more transmissible variant [of Covid-19] than we had in March circulating right now in the country.”
She said medical staff are currently wearing a mixture of level 1 and level 2 PPE rather than the elevated level 2 grade in place during the first wave.
The BMA has similarly called for all healthcare staff treating Covid-19 patients, or those suspected of having the virus, to have access to the increased aerosol protection provided by the higher-grade level 2 PPE.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA council, said: “Now we are in the midst of a horrific second wave, it’s essential that the hard lessons of this summer are acted upon to ensure that everyone who needs it is guaranteed access to PPE that meets all safety as well as cultural requirements.”
Dr Paoloni called for a PPE monitoring system to be set up in England similar to one recently launched in Wales – where a dashboard for stakeholders shows units of PPE issued in the last seven days, units currently in stock, and orders placed.
The DHSC told HuffPost UK guidance on levels of PPE was based on the latest clinical evidence and kept under constant review.
In contrast to its response on PPE, the DHSC was able to respond to HuffPost UK’s FOI request about testing contracts.
The department confirmed orders for Covid-19 tests or equipment worth £564m were successfully fulfilled, the products checked for quality, and supplies used by the NHS or other government-run testing facilities.
The testing contracts we asked about were with firms including Abbott Laboratories, Randox Laboratories, Roche Diagnostics and Amazon.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “The invitation to narrow the scope of the Freedom of Information request [in relation to PPE contracts] was given, but not taken up in relation to this inquiry.”