The Department for Health and Social Care has started examining expired PPE bought during the coronavirus pandemic, in the hope of extending its shelf life beyond the marked expiry date.
The Welsh NHS’s surgical equipment testing lab is spending eight months carrying out tests on medical-grade face masks and visors, following concern that tens of millions of items could go to waste.
DHSC launched its pilot testing programme as part of an effort to reduce waste after it emerged billions of items of personal protective equipment it had bought had been found to be unfit for purpose because it had expired, did not meet the right specifications or was not what the NHS was looking for.
Last week, CSW reported that at last count, seven billion units of PPE had been marked as “do not supply” to the NHS – amounting to nearly one in five items bought as part of the pandemic response.
Of that figure, 1.2 billion items were considered “wastage” – meaning they cannot be used in any setting.
Other items were deemed to be potentially useful in other settings outside the NHS, such as in schools or on transport, or had been placed “on hold” for various reasons while further checks were carried out.
The on-hold equipment included 95 million items – mostly eye protection – that had reached their expiry date. In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee earlier this month, DHSC permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormald said the department was “exploring whether it is possible to extend the shelf life” of some of those items.
According to DHSC, recorded expiry dates of PPE refer only to the original documentation or assumed life of the product when it was delivered and it is possible to legitimately extend expiry dates.
The department has now appointed the Surgical Materials Testing Laboratory as the lead testing partner for the pilot programme, which will focus on type IIR masks and visors.
The lab will carry out non-standard testing and pilot management under the £70,000 contract, which runs from 1 November 2021 until 30 June, but was only signed this month.
The scheme will also look at whether products can be recycled once they are no longer usable.
DHSC "pursuing options to sell, donate, repurpose and recycle excess stock"
The Department for Health and Social Care has faced intense criticism over the volume of PPE marked as “do not supply” after going through compliance checks over the last few months.
Jonathan Marron, director general of the department's Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, told MPs last week that while efforts were being made to recycle unusable equipment where possible, "more traditional waste disposal methods" would also be needed.
The department expected to burn 15,000 pallets of equipment – equivalent to nearly 600 lorry-loads – per month, he told the Public Accounts Committee.
DHSC was in the process of appointing waste-disposal companies as “lead waste partners” to carry out the incineration, Marron added.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said there was “no more fitting symbol for the lack of respect with which the Conservatives treat taxpayers’ money, than stockpiles of billions of pounds worth of useless PPE waiting to be burnt”.
And Daisy Cooper, health and social care spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, called for a “radical transformation in government procurement, to safeguard tax payers money and rebuild public trust”.
“The Covid inquiry must investigate why the government’s pandemic procurement went so badly wrong and find ways of empowering people to hold the government and its contractors to account in future,” she added.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Our absolute priority throughout this unprecedented global pandemic has always been saving lives.
“We have been reducing our logistics cost over time and continue to do so. We are also actively pursuing options to sell, donate, repurpose and recycle our excess stock, as well as seeking to recover costs from suppliers wherever possible.”