Politics

Government just incinerated PPE worth £1.4bn. Here's how that money could've been better spent

After it was revealed that £1.4bn worth of PPE purchased by the government from just one supplier has been destroyed or written off, we consider if the money could have been better spent

A health worker wearing PPE

A health worker during Covid wearing PPE that wasn't destroyed or written off. Image: UK government

Remember all that personal protective equipment (PPE) the government bought during Covid but never used? Ever wondered what happened to it? Well, it turns out £1.4bn worth of it has been destroyed or written off. And that’s just from one supplier.

An investigation by the BBC has revealed at least 1.57 billion items of PPE provided by Full Support Healthcare, an NHS supplier in Northamptonshire, has gone to waste – despite being manufactured to the proper standard.

Why, you ask? Well the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), which was responsible for buying PPE, says it can’t answer that burning question because we’re in a pre-election period. How convenient.

According to the BBC this is understood to be “the most wasteful government deal of the pandemic”. And that’s saying something. The rush to purchase PPE when Covid hit led to contracts being awarded without a proper tendering process, with Tory donors and friends of ministers among those receiving huge sums of money.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting responded to the news by saying the money lost “could have been used to pay the salaries of 37,000 nurses” (or around 36,000 if a new Labour government were to green light the Royal College of Nursing pay demands).

How else could this £1.4bn on destroyed PPE have been better spent? Let’s take a look.

Lifting 233,000 children out of poverty

The two-child benefit cap, which stops parents from claiming child tax credit or universal credit for more than two children, was introduced by the Conservatives in 2017. Labour, which looks set to form the next government, has come under heavy criticism for not pledging to scrap it in its manifesto, and pressure will only intensify in the coming months.

The End Child Poverty Coalition estimates that removing the policy would lift 300,000 children out of poverty, while reducing the depth of poverty for a further 800,000 children, at a cost of £1.8bn. So £6,000 a child.

Some crude maths suggests £1.4bn would therefore lift around 233,000 children out of poverty, which has a knock-on effect of easing the burden on the NHS.

Build 8,750 social homes

A recent study by consultancy firm JLL estimates that the cost of providing social housing for all 1.284 million people on a waiting list in the UK would run to £205bn. Now, £1.4bn is a long way off that, but it could provide homes for 8,750 of them. The lack of social housing is a key driver in the housing crisis, which is putting people off public sector roles because they don’t pay enough to be able to afford a private-rented home.

Buy PPE that fits Black NHS staff

The official Covid inquiry heard last year that respirator masks that fitted Black medical staff better during the pandemic were purchased in “much smaller” quantities.

Maybe some of that £1.4bn could have been better spent on comfortable equipment for Black and ethnic minority staff who make up a disproportionately large amount of the NHS workforce and were on the frontline during the pandemic.

Write off student debt for nurses

Last year the Nuffield Trust urged the government to introduce a student loan ‘forgiveness scheme’ for nursing graduates working in the public sector. Essentially that means wiping their student debt.

It followed worrying reports of staff leaving the NHS.

Nuffield Trust senior fellow Dr Billy Palmer said at the time: “The basis of loans forgiveness is in return for numbers of years of service, you start forgiving or paying off people’s student loans. There are many ways you could do this, the one that we have sketched out is potentially three years of service you write off 30% of loans, seven years 70%, and then the remainder 10 years.

“That has a clear benefit to graduates. Taking a typical nurse for example, it would likely reduce their lifetime repayment from about £28,000 down to about £20,000. So about £8,000 benefit for them if they completed the 10 years because of course they still are repaying some because they will be repaying up to that 10-year point where it’s fully forgiven.”

A scheme for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals including physiotherapists would cost around £230 million a year in England, the authors said. So £1.3bn could do this for six years.

Uprate local housing allowance next year

In the 2023 Autumn Statement, chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced local housing allowance (LHA) will be uprated to the 30th percentile of local rents in April 2024, at a cost of £1.3 billion. Housing benefits are supposed to help renters cover the 30th percentile of market rents – meaning tenants who receive LHA should have access to the bottom 30% of the market. But when this is frozen – and rents continue to rise – it means less homes are available to them.

The freeze is set to return next year despite private rents rising 8.7% in the last year on average. The only parties to mention doing anything about this in their manifesto are the SNP and Plaid Cymru

Going by the cost of the scheme for this year, £1.4bn would allow the government to keep the rates unfrozen for another year.

Scrap NHS Hospital car park fees for a decade

In 2022, the NHS took £145.8 million from patients and visitors in car parking costs, the equivalent of £400,000 every day. 

There has long been calls for this cost to be scrapped altogether. You may not be able to do that with £1.4bn, but you could wipe them for almost 10 years.

Make £7bn by betting on the election date

The furore around top Tories betting on the date of the general election has been everywhere for the past week. It’s led to Gambling Commission investigations and the party ditching two candidates.

It all started when The Guardian revealed an aide of Rishi Sunak whacked £100 on a July 4 election – the day before it was announced. His odds were 5/1, apparently.

If they’d have found a bookie willing to take £1.4bn stake – they’d have been walking out with a whopping £7bn. It would have been very unethical though.

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