The government was initially reliant on inadequate stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.
Demand for PPE soared in England from March 2020, when NHS and care workers, and key workers in some other industries, started to require protection from the virus. The Government’s stockpiles of PPE were intended for an influenza pandemic and did not hold all the equipment that proved to be required during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as gowns. The Government attempted to use its stockpiles to meet demand but there were difficulties distributing PPE and a lack of information on how much stock each NHS trust needed.
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‘This report contains tough lessons very relevant to the here and now. Earlier this year nursing staff were put in the terrifying position of having to work in potentially life-threatening environments with inadequate protection,’ said Mike Adams, England director at the Royal College of Nursing.
‘We heard stories of masks, when available, being flimsy, poorly fitting or years out of date and of staff having to share disposable visors. The RCN fought hard to force the government to address this situation and lessons must be learnt so that nursing staff never face horrendous circumstances like that again.’
Some PPE failed to meet required standards. Across two contracts, orders totalling £214 million were made for 75 million respirator face masks which the NHS will not use for the original purpose (one of the suppliers has since agreed to vary the contract and replace most of the order with a different type of face mask). Tens of millions of respirator masks ordered from other suppliers and some other types of PPE are also likely to be unusable for the original purpose.
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‘As PPE stockpiles were inadequate for the pandemic, government needed to take urgent action to boost supplies. Once it recognised the gravity of the situation it worked hard to source PPE, but most of these orders were not received in time for the first wave of the pandemic and many front-line workers reported shortages of PPE during that time. The price of PPE increased dramatically, and that alone has cost the taxpayer around £10 billion,’ said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.
‘There are important lessons for government to learn as it continues to tackle the pandemic. This includes fully understanding not just the requirements of the NHS, but also social care providers so that they can be better supported in future.’