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Government is 'burning taxpayers money by the billion' as £4bn of PPE set to go up in flames

The Public Accounts Committee revealed that up to £4bn of unusable PPE bought over the pandemic will be incinerated to “generate power”.

A man pulls a blue glove on to his left hand while wearing a medical gown

The government spent billions on unusable PPE. Image: ECDC/Flickr

Labour has accused the government of “burning taxpayers’ money by the billion” after the Public Accounts Committee revealed that up to £4bn of unusable PPE bought over the pandemic will be incinerated to “generate power”.

Nearly one in four contracts for buying PPE which the government awarded during the pandemic are now being questioned as a result of a “haphazard purchasing strategy”, the PAC says, including 3.5 billion gloves “where there are allegations of modern slavery against the manufacturers”.

A department for health and social care (DHSC) spokesperson defended the strategy as necessary in the circumstances, saying “we make no apology for procuring too much PPE rather than too little, and only 3 per cent of the PPE we procured was unusable in any context.”

Government critics have long been calling for an inquiry over how PPE was procured in the early months of the pandemic, accusing ministers including the former health secretary, Matt Hancock, of handing out money to friends, business contacts and party donors with little scrutiny.

In January the High Court found the so-called “VIP lane” for politically-connected suppliers was unlawful, and that the majority of PPE supplied by some companies through the process was unusable in the NHS. Problems include “counterfeit” masks and gowns which are not water-repellent, according to the report.

It continued: “The Department now needs to pay for the disposal of millions of items of PPE and is appointing two commercial waste partners to help them dispose of 15,000 pallets a month via a combination of recycling and burning to generate power. The costs and environmental impact of disposing of the excess and unusable PPE is unclear.“

The DHSC spokesperson claimed the report of burning £4billion of unusable PPE is “misleading”, but only detailed how the government would recycle or donate some items, not how else it would dispose of PPE which could not be used at all.

“The story of PPE purchasing is perhaps the most shameful episode the UK government’s response to the pandemic,” said Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, who accused the government of paying “obscenely inflated prices” after failing to adequately protect health care staff in the pandemic’s first months.

“[The Department for Health] singularly failed to manage this crisis, despite years of clear and known risk of a pandemic,” Hillier continued, “and the challenges facing it now are vast, from getting the NHS back on its feet to preparing for the next major crisis. There are frankly too few signs that it is putting its house in order or knows how to.” 

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “This absolutely damning report exposes the shameful and toxic waste of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. Ministers have been carelessly burning taxpayers’ money by the billion as unusable gowns, goggles, and gloves literally go up in flames.”

“On protective equipment they got the big calls hopelessly wrong as ministers lined the pockets of their cronies with public money using their illegal VIP fast lane while failing key workers on the frontline. It is outright incompetence and downright sleaze.

“The Covid public inquiry must be free of the Prime Minister’s interference so it can get to the bottom of this scandal. Ministers must face the full consequences of their wasteful negligence and unforgivable corruption.”

The DHSC spokesperson said: “In the face of an unpredictable and dangerous virus, we make no apology for procuring too much PPE rather than too little, and only 3% of the PPE we procured was unusable in any context.

“At the height of the pandemic, there was unprecedented global demand for and massive inflation in prices of PPE. But despite these global challenges, we delivered over 19.8 billion items of PPE to frontline staff to keep them safe.

“Now we are confident we have sufficient PPE to cover any future Covid demands, we are taking decisive action and have reduced storage costs by 82 per cent since October 2020.”

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