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Government looking to extend PPE shelf life after losses reach £8.7bn

by Costanza Potter
2 February 2022

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The Government is looking to extend the shelf-life of expired PPE as a report has revealed that it incurred losses of £8.7bn for PPE it bought last year.

Almost £700m was wasted on PPE that ‘cannot be used’, according to the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) annual report and accounts for 2020/21.

The report, published yesterday, said that the DHSC ‘estimates that there has been a loss in value of £8.7bn of the £12.1bn of PPE purchased in 2020-21’ – representing a loss of 72%.

It added that this includes:

  • £0.67bn of PPE that ‘cannot be used, for instance because it is defective’;
  • £0.75bn that is ‘in excess of the amount that will ultimately be needed’;
  • £2.6bn that is ‘not suitable for use within the health and social care sector’ but that the DHSC ‘considers might be suitable for other uses although these potential other uses are as yet uncertain’; and
  • £4.7bn that relates to ‘reductions in market prices since the goods were purchased’.

The DHSC report said: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic put the Department under extraordinary pressure. It needed urgently to procure enormous volumes of goods and services in an overheated global market. 

‘The Department has stated that its priority was to ensure that it was able to meet the requirements of a reasonable worst-case scenario.’

It added: ‘In order to do so, it rapidly increased its risk appetite and adapted its normal processes and procedures. 

‘The Department was not able to manage adequately some of the elevated risks, resulting in significant losses for the taxpayer. Nearly two years later, it has not fully restored effective control over some of the inventory purchased.’

In a statement also published yesterday, health minister Edward Argar revealed that expired stock will be tested ‘with a view to extending shelf life to maximise the usefulness and therefore value for money’.

He said: ‘Medical professionals within the department’s quality control and assurance function and colleagues within Medical Surveillance Authorities have recognised that stock which has exceeded its manufacturers use-by date, is not necessarily unusable. 

‘The department has begun a tender for a third-party medical laboratory to provide official testing of PPE products with a view to extending shelf life to maximise the usefulness and therefore value for money from the PPE purchased without compromising the quality of goods made available for use.’

In March 2020, Pulse revealed that practices across the country had been supplied with expired face masks that had concealed ‘best before’ stickers.

Despite assurances at the time that they were ‘safe’ to use, the Government later issued an alert in June telling GPs to throw away batches of out-of-date face masks after finding they posed a ‘risk to staff’.

It comes as a health minister also revealed earlier this month that approximately 3.4 billion units of PPE are ‘currently identified as potential excess stock’.

Responding to a written parliamentary question from Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife Wendy Chamberlain, health minister Edward Argar added that 1.2 billion items have been ‘deemed to be not fit for use’.

A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘Our absolute priority throughout this unprecedented global pandemic has always been saving lives. 

‘The supply of these vital items helped keep our NHS open at a moment of national crisis to deliver a world-class service to the public. We are seeking to recover costs from suppliers wherever possible.’

Mr Argar’s statement added that the DHSC makes ‘no apology for procuring PPE at pace and volume so that we could protect thousands of frontline healthcare workers in the NHS and social care’.

He added that around 3% of the purchased PPE has been ‘deemed not suitable for use’ and the DHSC has ‘high confidence’ that it has sufficient stock to cover all future Covid-related demands.

In November 2020, a National Audit Office (NAO) report revealed a Government estimate that 195 million items of PPE it had procured were ‘potentially unsuitable’.

It followed a litany of fiascos with official PPE provided to practices, including GPs being sent ‘used’ gloves, gowns that did ‘not meet’ fluid resistance standards and aprons made from ‘repurposed bin bags’, as well as the expired face masks.

The BMA recently said that GPs were left ‘horribly exposed’ to Covid amid a ‘desperate lack of support’, including a failure to ‘provide sufficient or adequate PPE’. 

Meanwhile, GPs can now access free FFP3 masks subject to a risk assessment from the Government’s PPE portal, which has been extended for a further 12 months until March 2023.

This story first appeared on our sister title, Pulse.