Hospital working wearing PPE

Taxpayer on the line for £2.7bn of unusable PPE, MPs warn

Image credit: H Shaw | Unsplash

There were ‘significant failings’ in the way the government managed PPE contracts during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was found to have a stockpile of almost 4 billion items that are not needed, many of which will be burned, which has raised environmental concerns.

The Department remains in dispute with many suppliers it entered into contract with over the quality of the PPE provided, but it accepts that some surplus stock will end up being incinerated.

In its report published today, the PAC found there was little sign of the government taking action against potentially fraudulent suppliers despite DHSC’s estimate that as much as 5 per cent of PPE expenditure may have involved fraud.

Following the start of the pandemic, some £3.5bn of Covid contracts were awarded without tender to companies with links to the Conservative Party. Last year, Labour accused the government of covering up the deals after then-Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, now health secretary, refused to publish meeting minutes and correspondence relating to the deals.

The PAC concluded that suppliers and intermediaries are likely to have made excessive profits while providing substandard PPE. Insufficient due diligence checks prior to contract agreement have left the Department paralysed from acting in some cases. Disputes with suppliers on 176 PPE contracts worth up to £2.7bn are still to be settled.

The DHSC spent more than £13bn sourcing PPE during the pandemic but has since failed to set up a system to catalogue equipment, currently spread across 70 locations in the UK as well as in China.

MPs warn that the government cannot assume that a rapid procurement on this scale will not be required again and urge more robust and transparent practices to be put in place.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, PAC chair, said: “The departure from normal approaches to due diligence, record keeping, decision making and accountability in relation to PPE contracts puts a stain on the UK’s response to the pandemic.

“Even if you accept that some proper procedure will have to slip in times of crisis the complete collapse of some of the most well-established civil service practices beggars belief. The taxpayer will be paying for these decisions for years to come.”

The DHSC denied not knowing how much PPE it holds and said it takes fraud “extremely seriously”.

A spokesperson for the department said: “Despite massive inflation in prices and unprecedented global demand, we delivered over 21.4 billion items of PPE to frontline staff to keep them safe, with only 3 per cent of the PPE we procured unusable in any context.

“It is simply wrong to suggest that the department does not know how much PPE it has, or where it is located. We have a comprehensive data system in place to allow us to oversee the storage network and dispose of any excess stock.”

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “This report exposes the Conservatives’ catalogue of scandalous waste, with ministers opening the door for VIP fraudsters to rip off the British public.

“Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is now literally going up in smoke as the government’s bonfire of useless PPE grows.”

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