Ministers are considering allowing the use of outdated personal protective equipment to prevent the disposal of some of the 303 million items the British government bought during the pandemic for almost £ 300 million.
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the opposition Labor Party, asked ministers last week through a written parliamentary question how much PPE stock had been acquired since the onset of the coronavirus crisis before use expired.
Health Minister Edward Argar replied on Monday that some 303 million items, which had cost taxpayers £ 299 million, had passed their estimated expiry date. About 16.5 billion items have been procured to help the NHS tackle Covid-19, the department of health and social care said.
But Argar said in its response that the recorded expiration dates in some cases refer to the original documentation or “assumed life of the product” when it was delivered. “We are currently investigating whether these expiration dates can be extended so that the products can be used,” he said.
According to DHSC, the stock of PPE expired in December included more than 15 million gowns, 46 million eye protectors, 120 million masks and 7 million gloves.
In a separate written response, Argar acknowledged that the true figure could be even higher, as the department reviewed its PPE inventory and on December 6 rated only 87 percent of it.
Rayner told the Financial Times it was a scandal that the government had failed to give key workers the protection they needed, especially at the beginning of the crisis.
“Ministers have now been forced to recognize the price tag for their corporate contracts and acquisition chaos, with hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on kit that has become obsolete while stuck in storage,” she said.
“The proposal that they will now force frontline staff to use equipment after the use date will be extremely worrying. “Their safety must never again be jeopardized by this government’s incompetence.”
Experts have suggested that, for example, expired PPE face masks may still be useful provided safety precautions are taken.
“If we look at face masks, for example, expiration dates provide assurance that the protection provided by the equipment will be effective by that date,” said Claire Horwell, professor of geo-health at Durham University.
“This does not necessarily mean that the product is unusable after that date, but quality controls are then required to ensure their continuous effectiveness.”
DHSC said: “Where we have excess inventory, we have a range of measures we can take, including recycling or reusing PPE, donating it elsewhere or recovering costs from the supplier. Items from PPE will not normally be discarded, even if they have expired, ”it said.
Meanwhile, the Trades Union Congress argued that the forthcoming public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic procurement policies and the “supply problems that have occurred” with regard to PPE should be taken into account.
“Essential questions need to be asked about how PPE supplies were distributed to key workers during the pandemic,” said Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary.
“At the beginning of the crisis, frontline personnel had to cope with protective equipment that was simply not suitable for the purpose. And then great qualities of useful equipment were left to decay. ”
One official said the government was able to channel surplus PPE stock to “international partners” who needed extra kit.
However, charities have criticized the government for slow progress in loosening rules that prevented aging items from being given to developing countries. Until September, such donations counted as overseas development assistance.
As a result, once DHSC gave £ 160 million in foreign aid, its departmental limit, it could not donate to the PPE. As a result, it has given only about 500,000 items to two countries, Lebanon and Nepal.
Abigael Baldoumas, policy and advocacy manager at Bond, a network of aid organizations, said the delay in changing the rule was another example of a “penny-pinch” approach to the UK government’s aid target.
“They have refused to share anything with lower-income countries that run the risk of providing more aid than their 0.5 percent. [of gross national income] target, even free PPE which would cost them very little, leading to unnecessary waste and deaths, ”she said.