Health secretary Matt Hancock has defended himself after the Department of Health and Social Care was found to have acted “unlawfully”by failing to publish details of Covid contracts worth billions. of pounds.
In tense exchanges with journalists this morning, Hancock brushed aside questions about a High Court challenge which had accused the government of a “wholesale failure” to follow its own transparency rules. He claimed “we never had a national shortage” of PPE in response.
Hancock was asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about Hinpack, a manufacturing business run by Alex Bourne, a former pub landlord and Hancock’s old neighbour, which is being investigated by the UK's medicines regulator over a contract to produce specimen collection tubes and funnels for coronavirus testing.
But the secretary of state dismissed the row, saying “this has all been looked into in great detail”.
He added: “The implication of your question about the specific one that you raised is that people should be barred from taking contracts if they know anybody involved.
“That would be ridiculous, and what's more, it's easy to ask these questions but what is hard is to deliver PPE in the teeth of a pandemic.
“And that's what my team did, and yes, there were individual challenges in access to PPE but we never had a national shortage, because of my team.”
He cited a report by the National Audit Office into the matter, saying they “investigated and found there was never a national shortage”.
“But that wasn't an accident, it wasn't something that happened passively, it happened because of my team,” Hancock continued.
But the NAO report he referred to explicitly says: “At times, many front-line workers in health and adult social care reported not having access to the PPE they needed during the height of the shortages.”
It goes on to say while NHS provider organisations said they were “always able to get what they needed in time” this was “not the experience reported by many front-line workers”.
“Feedback from care workers, doctors and nurses show that significant numbers of them considered that they were not adequately protected during the height of the first wave of the pandemic,” it added.
“Member surveys by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians and Unison in April and May 2020 showed that a significant proportion (at least 30%) of participating care workers, doctors and nurses reported having insufficient PPE, even in high-risk settings.”
A separate report into the issue by MPs, published earlier this month, also highlighted shortages of protective equipment in the first wave of the pandemic.
The Public Accounts Committee said: “We heard compelling evidence from organisations representing front-line workers that stocks ran perilously low; single use items were reused; some was not fit for purpose and staff were in fear that they would run out.”
While DHSC “maintains that its formal reporting arrangements did not identify any provider organisation, in health or social care, as having run out of PPE” a number of industry bodies did.
The report adds: “Care England is clear that some social care providers did run out of PPE, and representative organisations’ surveys showed staff reported PPE shortages.
“In a survey by the Royal College of Nursing many nurses reported being asked to reuse single-use items of PPE.
“Frontline staff found the multiple iterations of guidance confusing and were concerned that the guidance did not specify a high enough level of PPE to properly protect them.”
In response, Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan, who is also an A&E doctor, said Hancock’s claims were “insulting to all the frontline staff who didn’t have the right masks or who were given inferior gowns”.
The shadow mental health minister added: "They were put at unnecessary risk. On the other hand was a smash-and-grab of Tory donors getting PPE contracts, which meant the government ordered five times more than it needed, some prices inflated 1,400% for 25 billion extra items we won’t ever use.
“There was no need to order so much, most of it is being stored overseas. We didn’t need either of these situations, we just needed enough to keep frontline workers safe, plus a few months stock.
“The only reason to order so much, was so people could get rich, quick. It’s unforgivable.”
Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.