The government has been given two months to produce a plan to solve problems with personal protective equipment ahead of a feared second spike in cases of Covid-19.
The Public Accounts Committee has demanded a detailed assessment of how the government will ensure PPE can reach frontline workers in the health and care sector for future outbreaks by 8 September.
Committee chair Meg Hillier said government "messed up royally" during the first wave of the virus, and argued it is “absolutely vital” that similar shortages of PPE do not take place again if and when cases increase.
“The government conducted a large pandemic practice exercise in 2016 but failed to prepare,” she told CSW’s sister title The House Live.
“The previous committee warned on the lack of plans to ensure access to medicines and equipment in the social care sector in the event of a no deal Brexit, but, again, the government failed to prepare.
“There must be total focus now on where the problems were in procurement and supply in the first wave, and on eradicating them.”
The committee called on the Department for Health and Social Care to clarify its governance arrangements and outline when it expects to have a predictable supply of stock and ready access to PPE supply within the NHS and care sectors within two months. This should include detail on the roles and responsibilities for the procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment across NHS and social care settings, ahead of a possible second wave of Covid-19.
Hillier said that normally the committee would give departments a bit longer than two months to respond to recommendations, “but we are facing a pandemic and they’ve messed up royally”.
And she warned against “political complacency” creeping in over the prospect of a so-called second peak of coronavirus cases, as minds focus on the reopening of the UK’s struggling economy.
Two month deadline
Hillier argued that the government prioritised supplying PPE to the NHS over the social care sector and must now consider strategically what equipment is needed across the entire industry and how to sustainably source it.
In the NHS capital expenditure and financial management report, MPs called on ministers to outline within two months when they expect to have a predictable supply and ready access to PPE.
Since February, two billion items of PPE have been delivered to NHS and social care workers in England, according to DHSC.
Lord Paul Deighton, the former Goldman Sachs executive and Treasury minister appointed by government to solve PPE shortages, said supplies are now stable and have been secured for the rest of the year. A total of 28 billion items are on order, he told the BBC.
‘Detached from reality'
The report came after a row broke out this week after Boris Johnson argued “too many care homes didn't really follow procedures” during the coronavirus crisis.
The prime minister has refused to apologise for the claims, which have been met with incredulity among industry figures.
Hillier said the remarks were “a complete detachment from reality” and reminiscent of the former foreign secretary’s words about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian dual national jailed in Tehran, whom he incorrectly said was working at the time of her arrest in Iran.
“It was insulting. You can’t misspeak to that degree as prime minister. He didn’t know what he was talking about, it was a shocking lack of understanding of what’s been happening,” said Hillier.
“It was a bit like the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe comment. It was sloppy, off-hand, thoughtless, hurtful and wrong.”
A study of Norfolk care homes by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with Newcastle University found that a lack of PPE helped fuel the spread of Covid-19.
But the initial outbreak came about because of the numbers of non-care staff working within the facilities, the researchers said.
Elsewhere in the PAC report, MPs called for a plan on how the NHS will function after the coronavirus crisis. They insisted the pandemic should not be used as an excuse for failing to address longstanding issues such as workforce shortages, capital investment strategies and tackling deficits in NHS trusts.
The report called on NHS England and NHS Improvement to step up public information to clearly set out what patients can expect in terms of services available, waiting times and encouraging patients to access services they need. In addition, the bodies should also report by the end of the year on a plan to get the 10 most financially distressed trusts – running a still-rising combined deficit of £844 million – back to financial balance.
“The pandemic has thrown the deep, long-term underlying problems in NHS capital and financial management into stark relief. There is no room and must be zero tolerance for allowing the underlying funding problems to continue,” Hillier said.
Sebastian Whale is the political editor of The House, where a version of this story first appeared.