coronavirus face mask

Plans to burn £4bn of unusable PPE raise environmental concerns

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Government plans to burn £4bn of unusable personal protective equipment (PPE) - bought in the first year of pandemic - “to generate power” have been criticised by MPs for being a waste of money and having negative environmental consequences.

According to the cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the Department for Health & Social Care (DHSC) lost 75 per cent of the £12bn it spent on PPE in the first year of the pandemic to inflated prices and kit that did not meet requirements.

This included £4bn of PPE that will not be used in the NHS and needs to be disposed of, such as 50 million face masks with ear loops rather than head loops that were not fit for purpose.

There is no clear disposal strategy for this excess, but the Department currently plans to burn significant volumes of it in order to generate power, although there are concerns about the cost-effectiveness and environmental impact of this “strategy”.

In its latest report, the PAC said 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.

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”, the report said.

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.”

Dame Meg Hillier MP, PAC chair, said: “The story of PPE purchasing is perhaps the most shameful episode in 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.”

Chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, said the burning of PPE is a “galling” reminder that the DHSC’s approach to procurement may also have cost nurses’ lives.

She said: “Our members will find this galling. It is a painful reminder of the worst of the pandemic – inadequate or wasteful PPE.

“Sending billions of pounds up in smoke when NHS and care services are struggling will be hard for them to comprehend. If this money had been used more wisely and decent-quality PPE bought in the first place, then nurses’ lives might have been saved.

“It will be critical, if we are to truly learn the lessons, for the forthcoming public inquiry to pin down causes and to say clearly where mistakes were made so they are never repeated.”

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