The Department for Health & Social Care (DHSC) lost 75 per cent of the £12 billion it spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) in the first year of the pandemic to inflated prices and kit that did not meet requirements.
This included £4 billion of PPE that will not be used in the NHS and needs to be disposed of.
There is no clear disposal strategy for this excess but the Department says it plans to burn significant volumes of it to generate power – though there are concerns about the cost-effectiveness and environmental impact of this “strategy”.
In a report today the public accounts committee says that as a result of DHSC’s “haphazard purchasing strategy”, 24 per cent of the PPE contracts awarded are now in dispute – including contracts for products that were not fit for purpose and one contract for 3.5 billion gloves where there are allegations of modern slavery against the manufacturer.
The committee says this only exacerbates DHSC’s “track record of failing to comply with the requirements of Managing Public Money even before the further exceptional challenges of the pandemic response”.
It also raises concerns about “inappropriate unauthorised payoffs made to staff by health bodies”, with the planned large-scale NHS restructuring “increasing the risk of this happening again.”
Earlier this year the High Court ruled that the “high priority lane” that helped ‘VIPs’ gain government contracts for PPE were unlawful.
A 2020 report from the National Audit Office report found that half of all Covid contracts were awarded without a competitive application process. Applicants with political contacts were ten times more likely to win a contract than those without.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: “The story of PPE purchasing is perhaps the most shameful episode the UK government response to the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic health service and social care staff were left to risk their own and their families’ lives due to the lack of basic PPE.
“In a desperate bid to catch up the government splurged huge amounts of money, paying obscenely inflated prices and payments to middlemen in a chaotic rush during which they chucked out even the most cursory due diligence. This has left us with massive public contracts now under investigation by the National Crime Agency or in dispute because of allegations of modern slavery in the supply chain.
“Add to that a series of inappropriate, unauthorised severance payoffs made by clinical commissioning groups in the first year of the pandemic and the impression given falls even further from what we expect.
“DHSC singularly failed to manage this crisis, despite years of clear and known risk of a pandemic, and the challenges facing it now are vast, from getting the NHS back on its feet to preparing for the next major crisis. There are frankly too few signs that it is putting its house in order or knows how to.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has criticised the government over the report’s findings, saying they demonstrate “the shameful and toxic waste of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives”.
“Ministers have been carelessly burning taxpayers’ money by the billion as unusable gowns, goggles and gloves literally go up in flames,” the deputy Labour leader told LabourList.