Personal Protective Equipment: Waste - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 14th June 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:11 pm, 14th June 2022

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the expenditure on unusable and excess Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and the reasons for the waste.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

We have delivered over 19.8 billion items of PPE to keep front-line staff safe. Facing a dangerous virus, and against the background of no vaccine, as well as rising demand, market disruption and panic buying, we procured as much PPE as possible rather than too little. Only around 3% of PPE that the department purchased is unusable, and we are working with waste providers to dispose of unusable stock in the most environmentally friendly and energy-effective way.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, £9 billion was wasted on PPE due to obscenely inflated prices, irregular payments to intermediaries and faulty kit which is now poised to go up in smoke, along with nearly one in four of the contracts in dispute around products which are not fit for purpose or where allegations of slavery have been made. We know that the Government were responding to an unfolding crisis, but how was this shameful episode allowed to go unchecked and why has the department been allowed to establish a track record for not following public spending rules?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

We have to go back and remind ourselves of the situation in 2019 and 2020. We have to remember that, at the time, there was no vaccine and the whole market suddenly panicked—people were competing with each other to buy equipment. We heard stories of government officials sitting in factories with suitcases of cash, trying to make sure that they could buy material at the best possible prices, and at the same time we saw containers being redirected at sea and people being gazumped. We therefore made the decision at the time, without being accurately able to predict how much PPE equipment we needed—no one could have done so—to procure as much as possible.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, I appreciate the very real time pressure at the beginning of the pandemic. However, a few days spent to ensure high-quality PPE through some form of competition would have saved lives. Will the Minister tell the House how many contracts were agreed through a personal contact, without any form of competition at all, in that first year?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The noble Baroness will recognise that I was not in post at the time, but I have been advised by officials in the department that they put feelers out to as many people as possible. Government officials, Members of the House of Lords and politicians from all parties were suggesting companies, and that was put through a process whereby the department made an assessment of whether it was able to award contracts.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the National Audit Office found that the department is currently spending approximately £7 million a month on storing 3.9 billion PPE items that it does not now need. That is the equivalent of employing 2,400 extra nurses a year. Why are Ministers allowing this waste of taxpayers’ money to continue?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The noble Lord is absolutely right that we are paying storage costs, and over the last few months there has been a reduction in storage and the Government have been looking at more cost-effective ways. However, the overall strategy—and why we have two lead waste providers looking at the issue—is to ask how we can sell, donate, repurpose or recycle wherever we can. For equipment where complex chains of polymers cannot be broken down—chemists would understand this better—we are looking at how we can dispose of it in the most environmentally friendly way.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not just a question of a knee-jerk response at the very last minute of a new pandemic? Various committees, including the Science and Technology Select Committee, had pointed out that a pandemic was almost inevitable and that exactly such preparations were needed some years before it actually occurred.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The noble Lord is absolutely right. If we think back to swine flu in 2009 and the pandemic preparedness for that, there were such suggestions at the time and in subsequent years—we should not blame the particular party that was in power at the time—and the Government were urged to buy more and more equipment. The fact is that, had we bought it, it would have been at lower prices, and the cumulative cost of storage over the years would not have been as much as we spent recently.

Photo of The Bishop of London The Bishop of London Bishop

My Lords, I recognise the considerable pressure that the Government, the NHS and Ministers were put under, but can the Minister tell us what is being done so that we can learn from this situation and not replicate it in the next pandemic?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right that we should learn lessons, and there are two things we can learn: one is the benefit of hindsight, and one is the fallacy of hindsight. The fallacy of hindsight is to say that, given the same pressures, I would have acted differently. We can never know whether that is true; that is counterfactual. If we look at the benefit of hindsight, one thing we can learn is that if we buy more than enough in the future, and it is the right thing to do so, we should buy equipment that is as environmentally friendly as possible so that if it needs to be disposed of it can be recycled into other items.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the vast majority of hospitals are using single-use PPE garments which go straight to landfill after one use? There is available on the market a product with RFI tags, which enables it to be simply laundered for 70 different uses. Should we not be investigating that if we are serious about reducing carbon emissions?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. I am not aware of the product to which he refers, but I should be grateful if he would write to me with more detail and I will pass it on to the department.

Photo of Baroness Manzoor Baroness Manzoor Conservative

My Lords, it is important that lessons are learned from the PPE purchasing, but will my noble friend the Minister say what action the Government are taking to reduce people’s waiting times for surgery, diagnostic testing and clinical assessment, because that is the follow-on from the delays as a result of Covid-19?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My noble friend is absolutely right that there has been an elective backlog. In analysing the backlog across the system we have found that about 75% to 80% of those waiting are waiting not for surgery but for diagnosis. This is why we have rolled out community diagnosis centres and will continue to do so, not necessarily in NHS settings but also in sports grounds, shopping centres, et cetera. On top of that, about 75% to 80% of those who require surgery do not require an overnight stay. We are trying to work through the elective backlog as quickly and effectively as possible.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, what investment is being made to ensure that we can make our own PPE in this country in future, because the chief problem was that we were competing in an international market in a crisis?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am not aware of detailed proposals on that but I know that there are many British companies who sourced from abroad and others that tried to manufacture. If you look at the relative costs and skills in the value chain, you will find that for many of the entrepreneurs in this country it is not cost-effective to manufacture here.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

Returning to the Question and putting it in some perspective, as my noble friend Lady Merron said, £9 billion has been wasted in this exercise. Is the Minister aware that that is half of the cost of Crossrail, the biggest and most complicated civil engineering project in the whole of Europe? Is this not a national scandal?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I think we should look at the context of this £9 billion or £12 billion figure. We must remember that, at the time, market prices were inflated. We could not have bought the equipment at the prices you can pay for it today. The Government at the time had to make an estimate. If they had bought too little equipment, they would rightly have been criticised. Given that you can never make absolutely accurate predictions, on balance it is better to procure more than less. I was speaking to a Democrat politician from United States the other day. He said, “I just made the decision to procure as much as possible, but I knew I would get the flak afterwards. Lives were more important.”

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers

My Lords, at the beginning of the pandemic a great deal of PPE which was in store was already out of date and could not be used. Any homemaker knows that you look at the use-by date of the stuff in your fridge and try to use it before it goes out of date. Can the Minister say whether there is now a proper record-keeping system for the use-by dates of any PPE that is in store in anticipation of any future emergency need?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I think that the noble Baroness will recognise from when I was asked a previous Oral Question on this issue that where there was an official sell-by date, we had asked a couple of companies from which we had procured the equipment to look at whether that life could be extended. I am not sure of the details, so I commit to write to the noble Baroness.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend Lord Winston, the Minister said that the storage costs would have been greater than the costs of buying the PPE at the time that we did. Can he substantiate this for the elucidation of the House in general and say what those costs would have been for storage relative to the costs that we paid in the end? Perhaps he can give us those figures. If he has not got the information readily available today, maybe he will give them within a week or so.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Had we bought the PPE when it was first suggested that we should be preparing, the initial purchase price would have been lower, probably about £2.4 billion, but there would have been additional costs such as storage, replenishment of expired stock, and disposal of items, because even then there would have been items which had gone beyond their shelf life. That would have pushed the total cost to £13.4 billion.