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‘Perhaps the Most Shameful Episode of the Pandemic’: £4 Billion of PPE to Go Up in Smoke

David Hencke has the details of a new parliamentary report showing how masses of equipment bought by the Government is set for the incinerator

Photo: Marco Verch/Flickr

‘Perhaps the Most Shameful Episode of the Pandemic’£4 Billion of PPE To Go Up in Smoke

David Hencke has the details of a new parliamentary report showing how masses of equipment bought by the Government is set for the incinerator

Some £4 billion worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) bought by the Government during the Coronavirus pandemic is set to be in incinerated because it is not fit for use, MPs reveal in a new report.

This batch includes defective masks costing £673 million – including counterfeit products – that are not water repellent. The rest of the PPE is being binned because it does not meet NHS standards.

The report says that two waste contractors will take away 15,000 pallets of PPE a month for burning or recycling to generate power. The cost of disposal will be paid by the taxpayer.

MPs are concerned about the environmental impact of the scheme, since much of the discarded kit includes toxic plastics.

Byline Times was one of the first newspapers to reveal the plan to dispose of PPE bought during the pandemic – with a whistleblower saying that they had been approached by the recycling firm Suez about the disposal of Government-procured equipment.

The soon-to-be-redundant masks are currently in storage – costing the Government £3.5 million for every week they sit there. Meanwhile, some of the PPE is still in unopened shipping containers – raising the prospect that yet more of the equipment could be faulty.

The new report also discloses that, of the £12 billion spent on PPE in the first year of the pandemic, 75% of the spending has been written-off due to inflated prices or the buying duff products.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee says that this is the result of the Department of Health and Social Care’s “haphazard purchasing strategy”. Indeed, some 24% of the PPE contracts awarded during the crisis are now in dispute – including those for products that were not fit for purpose, and one contract for 3.5 billion gloves where there are allegations of modern slavery against the manufacturer.

This newspaper was the first to reveal, in November 2020, that the Government had purchased face masks manufactured by a Chinese company that uses state-imposed Uyghur Muslim labour in its factories.

Moreover, some £1.3 billion was spent illegally without authorisation from the Treasury – or in breach of Treasury rules – which led Gareth Davies, the Comptroller and Auditor General, to qualify the Department of Health and Social Care’s accounts due to fears of fraud.

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The department also did not have a complete record of the personal connections of ministers and highly-placed officials involved in the procurement of PPE.

It has been revealed that PPE contracts awarded through the ‘VIP lane’ – an expedited procurement route for firms with links to MPs, officials or advisors – totalled £3.8 billion during the pandemic. 53% of VIP lane suppliers provided some PPE items that are classified as not currently suitable for frontline services.

Nor have plans for future procurement of PPE been sorted out. The department has not drawn up a plan for future storage of PPE to meet another pandemic or a plan for procurement.

“The story of PPE purchasing is perhaps the most shameful episode of the UK Government’s response to the pandemic,” according to Labour’s Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

“At the start of the pandemic, health service and social care staff were left to risk their own and their families’ lives due to the lack of basic PPE. 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.

“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.”

Liberal Democrat Health and Social Care spokesperson Daisy Cooper said that the report is “further evidence of Boris Johnson’s dire track record” during the pandemic. 

“Not only has his Conservative Government wasted billions of pounds on useless PPE, taxpayers will now have to see their money literally go up in flames as that PPE is burned,” she added.

In response, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “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.

“At the height of the pandemic, there was unprecedented global demand for and massive inflation in prices of PPE. But despite these global challenges, we delivered over 19.8 billion items of PPE to frontline staff to keep them safe.

“Now we are confident we have sufficient PPE to cover any future COVID demands, we are taking decisive action and have reduced storage costs by 82% since October 2020.”

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