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Tue 22 June 2021

Officials were warned months in advance about an upcoming shortage of equipment yet failed to act, a major supplier has told a parliamentary committee

The Government ignored warnings in December 2019 that there would be shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) – ahead of the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee heard today.

Giving evidence to MPs this afternoon, PPE supplier Sarah Stoute, CEO of Full Support Healthcare (FSH), said that she contacted officials in December 2019 – warning of imminent issues with the supply of equipment.

FSH has been a supplier of PPE to the Government for many years and received warnings from hospitals that stockpiles were dwindling due to supply issues in China.

“We started to talk to [the Government] about stock issues in December 2019,” Stoute told the committee. “All of the hubs in the country were emptying. There was no stock and hospitals had started to call, to say they were in a panic. It took all of December and January to beg [the Government] to release the Brexit stock as a matter of emergency, whilst we went to production full-scale in the background, and urged them to place orders on products that were running out.

“There were three suppliers providing a particular product, all three based in Wuhan, and I made a call to say: ‘You’re going to have a major problem on this, because nothing is coming out of Wuhan. You need to ring the other two suppliers and buy everything you can get your hands on. You’re going to need a huge amount, it doesn’t matter where it comes from, just get the product’. The person I was speaking to in inventory tried to escalate that and was ignored – and was in a very stressed state about it.”

While the Government struggled to understand the scale of the crisis, Stoute’s company increased PPE production in December and January.

“We went into production and risked everything, just to get as much on a plane as we could,” she said. “So we’d already gone to production for things we couldn’t afford to pay for, waiting for the Government to catch-up.”

FSH had millions of items of PPE waiting on planes in February and March, she told the committee, yet her firm did not receive the go-ahead to supply the Government until April.

“It took senior officials in the Department of Health and Social Care [DHSC] to be put in place to get the wheels moving,” she told MPs. “Prior to that it was very slow, very low-level… Weeks went by when nothing was happening and we couldn’t get escalation.”

FSH eventually won £1.85 billion in orders to supply PPE to the Government. The firm logged revenues of £10 million in the previous financial year.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has claimed that there was never a “national shortage” of PPE during the Coronavirus pandemic – a claim that has been refuted by doctors and public bodies.

“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. Some doctors and nurses even shared photos of themselves wearing bin bags due to a lack of protective gowns. 

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. 

Even if the Government’s formal public inquiry isn’t set to begin for another year, various parliamentary groups are conducting their own investigations – and the evidence so far is damning.

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