Seven billion items of pandemic PPE 'not fit for purpose'

Nearly one in five units of PPE marked “do not supply” to the NHS by the Department of Health and Social Care
Photo: Chris Rout/Alamy Stock Photo

Nearly one in five items of PPE the government bought during the pandemic are not fit for purpose and cannot be used by the NHS, it has been revealed – including 1.2 billion items that cannot be used at all.

As of December, almost 7 billion items of personal protective equipment bought for frontline services – 19.1% of the 36.4 billion items bought since February 2020 – had been marked “do not supply” to the NHS by the Department of Health and Social Care.

The number is more than three times the figure quoted last September, when health minister Lord Bethell admitted 1.9 billion items worth £2.8bn were in the “do not supply” category – 6.2% of the PPE bought up to that point.

DHSC has not placed a cash value on the latest figures. However, the department said in its annual report that it had written off £8.7bn worth of PPE in 2020-21 alone – including £673m spent on completely unusable items and £4.7bn lost to cost inflation.

The not-fit-for-purpose stock includes 1.2 billion units of PPE that cannot be used in any setting.

This "wastage" – which accounts for 3.3% of pandemic PPE – includes around 800m aprons that DHSC is now looking to recycle, permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormald said in a letter to the Public Accounts Committee, which was published without fanfare this week.

The revelation comes as a consultation opens on the terms of reference for the public inquiry into the government's response to Covid. The inquiry will look at pandemic preparedness and the healthcare response, among other things.

A further 1.3 billion items have been judged unsuitable for frontline services but potentially usable in other settings.

A small percentage of the “do not supply” items meet technical standards and could be used by frontline services, but have been put on temporary hold. These include 3.5 billion gloves not yet distributed because of allegations of modern slavery in the supply chain. Decisions on whether or and how they will be used will be made once DHSC has investigated.

The “on hold” items also include 69 million nitrile gloves that were bought recently and have been held back “to ensure good stock management”.

A further 95 million items – mostly eye protection – have reached their expiry date, but DHSC is looking into whether the expiry dates could be extended.

Equipment is added to the “do not supply” category when it has been through DHSC’s quality-assurance checks and deemed “not suitable for its original intended purpose”. It will then go through further checks to determine if it can be used elsewhere, but is “stock which we are not actively pushing to the NHS”, Wormald said.

DHSC renegotiates contracts and eyes legal action

The department is also in the process of renegotiating some of its PPE contracts to cut down spending on surplus kit.

As of 18 December, the department had cancelled or varied contracts to cut £572m from the overall bill, Wormald said. The renegotiated deals have reduced the original supply of PPE by some 1.21 billion items.

Meanwhile, DHSC is separately examining PPE contracts worth £1.14bn where suppliers have fallen short – and could be ready to take legal action.

DHSC is “undertaking commercial decisions” that could lead to litigation on 28 contracts, to supply 2.31 billion items of PPE altogether.

In July 2021, the department was "engaged in commercial discussions" on 40 contracts with a combined vaue of £1.2bn, Bethell said last year.

The work is part of what Wormald called an “ongoing commercial reconciliation” the department is carrying out to try and recoup some of the huge sums spent on PPE contracts during the pandemic.

Storage and detention charges hit £755.8m

Since February 2020, DHSC has bought more than 36.4 billion items of PPE, 31.4 billion of which had been delivered by December.

And the department has now "establish a resilient UK-based supply chain" for all types of Covid-critical PPE except gloves, Wormald said. DHSC has signed contracts with 31 UK-based companies for 3.9 billion items of PPE, 3.77 billion of which have been delivered so far.

As of 6 December, 12.4 billion units of PPE are held in pandemic stock – around four months’ supply.

The department is working to reduce the cost of storing its pandemic stockpiles, Wormald said. It cost £3.27 on average in December to store a pallet of PPE – down significantly from £20 in October 2020. That has brought weekly storage costs down from £18.5m to £4.2m in that time frame, he said.

DHSC has spent £755.8m on storing PPE stock between April 2020 and the end of November 2021. More than a third of that figure – £276.6m – was chalked up to detention charges for retaining shipping containers. A further £111.5m was spent on demurrage – which must be paid to the owner of a chartered ship on failure to load or discharge the ship within the time agreed.

The figures show the department has delivered on a pledge by Wormald to PAC in July 2021 “prioritise” efforts to cut costs associated with storing PPE. Up to that point, DHSC had paid £224m in detention fees and its total spending on demurrage has not risen since then.

In a bid to cut detention costs, DHSC bought shipping containers worth £1.1m.

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