The Department of Health and Social care did not have a pandemic plan or equipment stockpile that was fit to meet the challenges of Covid-19 and wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on unsuitable personal-protective equipment as the pandemic struck, MPs have said.
Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said that after spending vast sums of money on PPE that was of poor quality and cannot be used for its intended purpose, they were now concerned DHSC had over-ordered supplies.
They said the amount of PPE the department had secured since the first wave of the pandemic could last five years, potentially compromising the government’s ambitions to maintain a UK manufacturing base for PPE because of reduced domestic sales opportunities.
Additionally, the PAC report criticised the government’s “high priority lane” for new PPE suppliers which went live in April. MPs said it “was not designed well enough to be a wholly effective way of sifting credible leads to supply PPE”.
The committee also questioned departments’ lack of transparency over emergency procurement conducted under Public Contract Regulations 2015, allowing for normal rules to be bypassed.
According to their report, more than £10bn of goods and services were bought without competition during the pandemic’s first wave. But MPs noted that despite requirements for awarding bodies to document why they had chosen a supplier and how any associated risks were identified and managed there were still examples of departments that had failed to do so.
The report said details of fewer than half of contracts worth more than £25,000 awarded before the end of July had been published by 10 November last year. It added that only 25% had been published on the Contracts Finder website within the government’s target of 90 days.
Committee chair Meg Hillier said evidence gathered by her panel, following investigations by the National Audit Office late last year, showed a range of procurement and transparency failings related to the pandemic.
“Government had permission to procure equipment at pace and without tendering under the law, but acting fast did not give it license to rip up record keeping on decisions,” she said.
“It did not publish contracts in time and kept poor records of why some companies won multi-million-pound contracts.
“The cost of emergency procurement – billions of pounds higher than the equivalent a year before – highlights how both its pandemic plan and supply of essential equipment were inadequate.
“Frontline workers were left without adequate supplies, risking their own and their families’ lives to provide treatment and care. We’re at a dangerous new phase of the pandemic, in our third national lockdown with no defined end in sight. The government needs to acknowledge the errors and be better prepared.”
Among their recommendations, PAC members said DHSC and the Cabinet Office and should publish a lessons-learned report on the procurement of PPE during the pandemic and share the lessons with the wider government commercial function.
MPs said that as part of improving its approach to managing and distributing stocks of PPE, the DHSC should confirm to the committee by July that its stockpiles are in line with requirements contained in departmental plans; that stocks are monitored and replaced before they go out of date; and that there are contingency plans to secure new items of clinical equipment when they are needed at short notice.
They also called on DHSC to detail precisely how much of the PPE it procured last year cannot not be used at all; how much cannot be used for its intended purpose; and how it has determined the volume and cost of each category. The NAO determined that the figure was in the hundreds of millions in a November report.
Committee members noted that the Cabinet Office had accepted all 28 recommendations of Nigel Boardman’s independent review of ways to improve its procurement processes, and said they should be applied to all departments. The report called for the Cabinet Office to set out how this would be done by July.
DHSC said it published all contracts as part its commitment to transparency, but it acknowledged that some had not been uploaded in a “timely fashion” because staff time had been prioritised on securing life-saving PPE for the NHS.
It said all contract-award notices for PPE had now been published online as well as all of the contracts themselves, which detailed all suppliers awarded a PPE contract, the value of the contract and the items ordered under the contract.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “We have been working tirelessly to procure, produce and deliver PPE to over 58,000 settings, protecting our health and social care staff on the frontline of this pandemic.
“As the Public Accounts Committee recognises, the government faced significant challenges in having to rapidly procure PPE at pace in a competitive international market. Thanks to the combined effort of government, NHS, armed forces, civil servants and industry we have delivered over 8.1bn items of PPE at record speed.
“We have a robust processes in place to ensure PPE meets the strictest safety and quality standards before being distributed to the frontline.”
DHSC added that the NAO’s November report on government procurement during the pandemic had reported that only 0.5% of products bought had not met clinical standards.