Covid: PPE price rises cost taxpayers £10bn, report says

By Rachel Schraer
Health reporter

Publishedduration3 hours ago

Stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) were inadequate for the Covid pandemic and price rises earlier this year cost taxpayers about £10bn, the government spending watchdog says.

The National Audit Office said there had been a particular shortage of gloves and aprons.

The government said the NAO’s report recognised that NHS providers had been able to get what they needed in time.

Almost £12.5bn was spent on 32bn items of PPE between February and July 2020.

During the same period in 2019, 1.3bn items were bought at a cost of £28.9m.

Insufficient checks

Each item had been “substantially” more expensive in 2020, because of very high global demand, the NAO said, from almost triple the cost for respirator masks to more than 14 times as much for body bags.

Had the government been able to pay 2019 prices, it would have spent £2.5bn on PPE in 2020.

In reality, it had spent £12.5bn, including hundreds of millions on “unsuitable” items that could not be used.

Some had “passed its expiry date or did not meet current safety standards”, the watchdog said, with “insufficient checks” meaning Public Health England had had to recall eye protectors that did not meet standards.

NAO head Gareth Davies said: “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… the price of PPE increased dramatically, and that alone has cost the taxpayer around £10bn.”

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image captionUnions worried care workers did not have proper protective equipment

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said “only 0.49% of all the purchased PPE tested to date” had not been fit for purpose.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were two emergency stockpiles of PPE:

  • one as part of the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Programme
  • one built up in case of a no-deal Brexit

But the NAO said: “The EU exit stockpile held few items of PPE other than a large number of gloves.”

Meanwhile, the flu stockpile, as well as having shortages of some key items, did not include any gowns or visors despite the fact they had been “recommended for inclusion in June 2019 by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag)”.

Public Health England told the NAO it had been analysing the market to work out which gowns to buy, when the pandemic had begun, which it said was the “normal approach” to find a lower price.

‘Precarious situation’

In mid-March, the government had still believed its two stockpiles would provide “most of the PPE needed to manage a Covid-19 pandemic” and so focused on distributing this PPE rather than buying more,

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