1.5bn unused PPE items in England have passed expiry date, says audit office

Some 1.5bn items of personal protective equipment (PPE) in storage in England have passed their expiry date, the public spending watchdog has revealed, as health officials are urging the government to “get a grip” on stocks and contracts.

More than 3.6bn PPE items are being stored by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) because it considers them unsuitable for frontline services, accounting for 11% of all PPE it has received, the National Audit Office (NAO) said after its investigation into the management of PPE contracts.

Its report said that more than half of 51 so-called VIP suppliers – companies suggested by government officials, ministers’ offices, members of parliament, senior NHS staff and other health professionals – provided PPE that was unsuitable for frontline services. Some of the reasons the PPE was unsuitable was because it would take too long to assemble, there were concerns about modern slavery, or paperwork was missing.

Between March 2020 and October 2021, it cost the DHSC £737m to store PPE, including penalty charges of £436m because it had to store PPE in containers for longer than expected.

Furthermore, the department continues to manage 176 contracts where it is in dispute, where it believes it may not achieve full value for money, putting an estimated £2.7bn at risk. In total, DHSC has spent £12.6bn of the total £13.1bn it expects to spend on almost 38bn items of PPE.

Meg Hillier
‘Get a grip’: Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee. Photograph: John Stilwell/PA

Meg Hillier, a Labour MP and chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said: “The numbers are staggering – over 30bn items of PPE received so far with 5bn more on the way and 3.6bn items that can’t be used by frontline services. Storage alone has cost over £700m, with DHSC continuing to spend £7m a month storing PPE it doesn’t need.

“Whatever forbearance the taxpayer may have had at the start of the pandemic, this will quickly wear thin if DHSC can’t now manage the consequences. The department must urgently get a grip of its PPE stocks and focus on protecting value for taxpayers. It has to claw back contract costs where it can, get rid of unusable PPE, and cut down on expensive storage.”

Officials rushed to buy the equipment at the start of the pandemic and the NAO watchdog recognised there was “an extremely over-heated global market, with desperate customers competing against each other, pushing up prices and buying huge volumes of PPE”.

But the report said there were “inconsistencies” between the volume of PPE ordered and what was received, and that billions of items were not suitable for frontline use.

The NAO report detailed how the DHSC awarded 394 contracts worth £7.9bn through two new supply chains. Some 9,492 contracts worth £5.2bn were agreed through the existing NHS supply chain. Of the 394 contracts, 115 went to 51 VIP lane suppliers and 46 of these did not go through due diligence checks, which were only put in place from May 2020 onwards.

The report said the DHSC paid out £2.5bn to suppliers upfront – before PPE was received – to “prevent contracted PPE being gazumped while in transit”. Five of those upfront payment contracts, worth £19m were at risk of not being delivered, the report said.

Of the PPE that has been received, 17.3bn items (55%) have been sent to frontline staff, but 14.1bn items – worth £8.5bn – remain in storage, either in one of 50 warehouses, with suppliers, or in shipping containers.

The DHSC said: “Our priority throughout the pandemic has been saving lives, and we have delivered over 19.1bn items of PPE to frontline staff to keep them safe. Having too much PPE was preferable to having too little in the face of an unpredictable and dangerous virus, given this was essential to keep our NHS open and protect as many people as possible.

“Where contracts are in dispute, we are seeking to recover costs from suppliers and we expect to recover significant amounts of taxpayers’ money.”