PPE and the UK taxpayer get burnt (again)

The BBC ran a story this week about the UK’s spend on PPE during the pandemic. I was contacted by the journalist, Jon Ironmonger, and did a video interview at the BBC, although I believe it has only appeared (a short excerpt anyway) on a BBC East programme, which I haven’t seen! The report centred on Full Support Healthcare, who are based in Wellingborough in that region.

But there were articles on the main BBC website, quoting my remarks. The journalist actually wanted me to be balanced and give an “expert” perspective on what happened with PPE procurement.  I tried to explain the problems when demand for anything suddenly rockets, but I was critical of a number of aspects of the programme, all of which I have written about over the years since 2020.

One continuing mystery is why the initial forecast of demand turned out to be so far out – about twice what in retrospect would have been reasonable. That was what triggered the “panic buying” in May 2020, so arguably it was the single biggest cause of the subsequent disastrous waste of money (over £10 billion).  The forecast led to some incorrect specifications being issued in haste, use of very strange suppliers (not all of whom were properly vetted, despite the re-writing of history that some politicians have attempted), the lack of anything much in the way of cost / price analysis or negotiation with suppliers, and the infamous “VIP Lane” for suppliers with a contact in government.  

The latest article from Ironmonger focuses on the stock management aspect. It appears that some £1.4 billion of aprons, masks and googles just from Full Support have been incinerated, recycled or written off. A general rule of thumb is that around twice as much PPE was contracted for as was needed, as it turned out. So given the total bought from that firm was £1.8 billion, it is not clear why such a high percentage of their product has been wasted.

The Department of Health and Social Care disputes that loss number, saying some money has been recouped by recycling, but the Department basically refused to engage with Ironmonger while he pursued this story, ignoring his requests, and has failed to provide clear evidence of what has happened to stock or financial details.

Full Support was an established supplier of PPE before the pandemic, unlike many of the cowboys who got in on the game once panic set in. Sarah Stoute of the firm told the BBC the shipping containers that transported her company’s PPE were unloaded “various times up to 207 days post-arrival”. She said the masks were “perishable goods and required to be kept cool and dry” and “not intended to be stored for a prolonged period in a shipping container, yard or field”.

The port of Felixstowe became jammed with PPE containers in November 2020, and they were moved to various airfields, other ports and available land. After some stock was sold off to other dodgy people for disposal, it was found dumped on a site in a New Forest.

Here is is one of the many articles I have written on this topic. This one gives a good summary of what I still feel are the key issues or questions around what happened. It’s right that we remember the desperate situation that faced us back in early 2020, and both users and buyers of PPE were in a particular crisis situation. But I still wonder if we have really learnt lessons from what certainly wasn’t one of UK public procurement’s finest hours.

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