Social care providers only received 10% of PPE required
Social care providers were not adequately supported in obtaining PPE during the first half of the pandemic and came close to running out, a watchdog reveals.
A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) finds that government was initially reliant on stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) that proved inadequate for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told the NAO that it took different approaches to supporting social care and trusts during the pandemic.
Social care providers, which are mostly private- or voluntary-sector organisations, either accessed PPE from wholesalers (as they did prior to the pandemic) or from local resilience forums and DHSC’s helpline which was set up to respond to emergency requests.
The sector received approximately 331m items of PPE from government between March and July (14% of the total PPE distributed and 10% of their estimated need). This compared with 1.9bn items sent to NHS trusts in that period (81% of PPE distributed and 80% of estimated need).
NHS provider organisations told the NAO that while they were concerned about the low stocks of PPE, they were always able to get what they needed in time.
However, surveys of care workers, doctors and nurses show that significant numbers considered that they did not have access to the PPE they needed and were not adequately protected.
Some PPE failed to meet required standards. Across two contracts, orders totalling £214m were made for 75m 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.
Employers have reported 126 deaths and 8,152 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 among health and care workers linked to occupational exposure.
In September 2020, DHSC published a PPE strategy which aims to increase resilience by means of a bigger stockpile, a much larger UK manufacturing base, a better distribution network, and an improved understanding of the needs of health and care organisations.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said it is important that DHSC draws lessons from the first wave of the pandemic when taking forward its new strategy.
This includes ensuring emergency pandemic plans include appropriate stockpiles of PPE and resilient arrangements for the rapid procurement and distribution of PPE.
‘As PPE stockpiles were inadequate for the pandemic, the 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.
‘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.’
Health minister Jo Churchill said stockpiles prepared for flu pandemics by DHSC were made available prior to the WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic in order to support the initial response, and this month we will have in place a stockpile of four months’ worth of all COVID-critical PPE
‘As the NAO report recognises, during this unprecedented pandemic all the NHS providers audited ‘were always able to get what they needed in time’ thanks to the herculean effort of Government, NHS, Armed Forces, civil servants and industry who delivered around 5 billion items of PPE to the frontline at record speed.
‘We set up robust and resilient supply chains from scratch and expanded our distribution network from 226 NHS trusts to over 58,000 health and care settings.
‘With almost 32 billion items of PPE ordered we are confident we can provide a continuous supply to our amazing frontline workers over the coming months and respond to future eventualities.’