Today
Sat 17 April 2021

The Government’s justification for its actions around shortages of personal protective equipment and procurement is a world away from the realities faced by those on the frontline

Since a judge found that Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully in failing to publish details for contracts awarded for the supply of personal protective equipment within the legal time limit, he has repeatedly insisted that his actions were justified as they prevented a nationwide PPE shortage at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

However, the realities faced by those working on the frontline paint a very different picture.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, doctors on our Facebook group were telling us what was happening and in mid-March it became apparent that lack of PPE was widespread across the UK and across hospitals and surgeries,” Dr Julia Patterson of campaign group EveryDoctor told Byline Times. “Doctors were raising the alarm.”

Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, Hancock said that it “is hard to deliver PPE in the teeth of a pandemic and that’s what my team did. And yes, there were individual challenges in access to PPE but we never had a national shortage, because of my team”.

Healthcare professionals have called this claim “categorically not true”.

In fact, the UK faced a desperate shortage of PPE last March and April, with doctors and nurses left working with patients without even basic equipment. Some even shared photos of themselves wearing bin bags due to a lack of protective gowns. 

“We are flooded with anxieties and concerns by doctors – it is the single biggest issue at the moment,” the British Medical Association’s chief Dr Chaand Nagpaul told MPs in late March. 

A report later released by the National Audit Office (NAO) explained the cause of the problems in excruciating detail. The Government’s pre-pandemic stockpile contained enough PPE for just two weeks – including aprons which would only last six days. 

An investigation by Channel 4 News found that much of the stockpile had been left to expire, with around 200 million pieces of vital kit all expiring eight months before 30 January 2021. 

Dr Patterson told Byline Times that, from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, doctors were making noises about the lack of adequate equipment. EveryDoctor collected more than 2,000 responses from healthcare professionals about their supplies of PPE, with many doctors reporting on their situation more than once a week. 

“First there was an issue with the supply of PPE,” she said. “The data we collected, along with anecdotal evidence from medical staff, showed they had a lack of equipment. The second issue was on policy which meant the PPE being provided did not always meet World Health organisation standards.”

The dossier of evidence collected by EveryDoctor also found that, while healthcare professionals in acute settings such as intensive care units were more likely to have access to appropriate PPE, workers further away from those wards were less likely to have the equipment they needed.

“We found that nurses in the community or people working in care homes or hospices, or those in support roles such as porters, drivers or telephone operators were less likely to have the right PPE,” Dr Patterson added.


A Scramble for Procurement

In mid-March, officials and ministers still believed that the existing procurement system would be able to cope with surging demand. 

They were wrong, and then had to scramble to buy PPE from private sector firms. 

In the rush, with the Government’s bargaining power weakened, the UK paid dramatically inflated prices – overpaying, in comparison to normal times, by £12.5 billion. Indeed, the PPE procured by the Government before November would have cost £2.5 billion in 2019. In the chaos of 2020, it cost £15 billion. 

Yet, even this outpouring of taxpayer cash did not deliver the goods. Thousands of health workers contracted COVID-19 during this period, and hundreds died. And, while NHS trusts received 80% of their estimated PPE need from the Government, social care providers were supplied with only 10%.

From the start, serious concerns were raised about the Government’s procurement process, after Byline Times and other publications revealed that bizarre companies, some with ties to the Conservative Party, had been awarded multi-million-pound deals for the supply of PPE. 

Examples included a hotel carpeting company, a naval design firm, a Florida fashion designer, a four-month-old DNA analysis firm, a one-year-old ‘micro’ firm, a small “luxury packaging” company, a one-month-old firm owned by offshore finance specialists, a dormant firm, a company owned by an individual listed in the Panama Papers, a fast fashion supplier, and a lifestyle company with no employees or trading history.

Even by November, when the NAO released its damning appraisal, the majority of the 32 billion items of PPE procured by the Government still hadn’t arrived.

“We all know there was a problem with the supply,” Dr Patterson told Byline Times.  “Over 900 healthcare and social care workers in the UK have died of COVID-19. Many weren’t provided with sufficient PPE. Each one of those deaths deserves proper investigation.

“For each of the people who was in that individual’s circle, including colleagues, there’s an awful amount of processing of grief. That processing cannot be done when the person in charge of the NHS is denying some of the facts that led to those deaths.” 


Lessons Learnt?

It is not just EveryDoctor which has challenged Matt Hancock’s assertion that there was no national shortage of PPE.

Medical professionals have expressed their concern about his claims, including frontline NHS doctor Dr Meenal Viz, who observed: “Please remind [Hancock] that I literally had to launch a legal challenge because he implemented ‘Acute Shortages Guidance’ for PPE.” 

Dr Viz has been joined by Dr Rachael Clarke, who described how at the height of the pandemic shortages meant that she “*begged* local veterinary practices and schools for masks and visors”.

“Many healthcare professionals are experiencing mental health problems as a result of what they have been through this year,” Dr Patterson said. “The knowledge that the person in charge of the NHS is now denying the lived experience of those who have endured such atrocities is horrifying to me as a doctor. It also makes me terrified for the future. If there is a reluctance or denial of problems to date, how on earth are we going to learn from mistakes and make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

The Department for Health and Social Care has repeatedly insisted that, while there have been individual challenges in getting PPE to hospitals, hospices and care homes, there was never a national shortage. Last April, during the first Coronavirus wave, Hancock told BBC News that any PPE shortages were a “distribution issue”.

Speaking after the judgment, Hancock said that “there was a global shortage of PPE, we needed to buy PPE to save lives and my officials, with my full support, spent every waking hour buying PPE so that even though we came close, we never actually ran out of PPE in this country and they did that even though the paperwork got delayed by on average just over a fortnight”. He said his team “did the right thing in saving lives”.

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