PPE Failing in the UK

A woman walks past a street mural, during the lockdown in London 2020. by Edward Howell

PPE availability remains a significant concern in the UK, with numerous hospitals and clinical practices reporting that they cannot get hold of the equipment that they need.

Staff are worried about their safety and the effect that a lack of personal protective equipment could have on the spread of infection to non-COVID-19 patients.

On 12 June 2020, the National Audit Office (NAO) published an official assessment regarding the availability and distribution of personal protective equipment throughout the UK. The report indicated that the NHS PPE stockpile was only sufficient to provide adequate protection to medics during the early stages of the pandemic. After that, the inventory began to run out.

The NAO reviewed the assumptions made by Whitehall when modelling "worst-case" scenarios for infectious agents, like coronavirus. The study concluded that the government had substantially underestimated the need for PPE, particularly coveralls, gowns and visors in its calculations. It determined that experts had not made sufficient provision for likely types of pandemic events, including those caused by coronaviruses

The report also provided data on the actual provision of PPE, compared to those recommended under the Whitehall assumptions. Figures suggest that availability of virtually all PPE items was lower than in the preparedness document. Some supplies, such as eye protectors and gowns, were under 10 per cent of the required amount.

The government only achieved its modelled target for face masks and clinical waste bags during a brief period between the middle of March and early May. At all other times, there were stock shortages according to internal figures.

The Department for Health and Social Care hit back against the NAO document, calling parts of it misleading. The government says that it has delivered more than 1.7 billion items of personal protective equipment since the advent of the crisis, underscoring its commitment to practitioners and medical professionals.

The government also says that NHS practices and other care providers sourced PPE through alternative channels, besides the central stockpile.

This policy announcement led to significant confusion in NHS practices regarding where they should source their equipment. The government opened a central supply route at the start of April. But due to constraints on delivery and order sizes, many practices and NHS trusts opted to use third-party channels instead.

On 1 May, the Department for Health Announced that PPE deliveries were being centrally managed and that hospitals should no longer seek alternative arrangements. The NAO suggests that by around 15 May, central supply was meeting demand. However, some doctors report they were still not getting the equipment they needed as late as the middle of June.

The NAO report also provided evidence that Whitehall had squandered opportunities to better prepare for the pandemic last year. In June 2019, for instance, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) recommended that the government increase its stockpile of gowns. However, while procurement was planned for early 2020, it did not occur.

The debate over PPE will continue, and some sectors, such as residential care, continue to experience shortages.

Zoe Brightmore
About the author

Zoe Brightmore

Zoe is a volunteer of PPE4People. A recent BSc neuroscience graduate with experience in scientific writing and two new kittens.