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NHS unions and campaigners reacted with fury today to a government admission that £2.8 billion of personal protective equipment (PPE) is not fit for purpose.
Health minister Lord Bethell revealed that nearly two billion items of PPE are unusable and lying in warehouses labelled “do not supply” — more than 6 per cent of the volume purchased.
The government admitted in July that it was in dispute with a number of companies over 40 contracts for £1.2bn worth of PPE that was either substandard or simply undelivered — including a million masks found to be below the FFP3 standard used in intensive care.
Unite union national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said that the latest revelation was “a searing indictment of the secretive fast-track fashion (in which) many of the PPE contracts were awarded to ‘friends’ of the Tory Establishment, something we have suspected for a long time.
“The government should now use every tool at its disposal to ensure that the money is reclaimed for the hard-pressed taxpayer from the suppliers of this shoddy equipment.
“It is a national disgrace that NHS workers trying to care for us should be given equipment that has not protected them.”
Health union Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “This was profiteering, plain and simple: it shows the degree of cronyism at the heart of government.
“Contracts should be awarded transparently and based on value for money, not as favours for their wealthy chums.
“It’s a national scandal, a disgrace and an abuse of taxpayers’ cash.
“The start date of the public inquiry must be brought forward.
“This would expose the government’s shortcomings on a grand scale.”
Helen Donovan, the Royal College of Nursing’s professional lead for public health, said: “Nursing staff who were put in harm’s way early in the pandemic because they could not access proper protective equipment will find this admission deeply insulting.
“Ministers have had repeated warnings about the quality of the equipment nurses are provided with and we have had repeated assurances that staff will be protected.
“With tens of thousands of nursing vacancies in England alone and staff already off sick because they have not been protected, this must be fixed as a priority.”
Lord Bethell has himself been under the spotlight, with Labour demanding his sacking after earlier reports that he had failed to declare meetings with companies which were later awarded £1bn in Covid-related contracts and had used his private email account for official business.
Keep Our NHS Public campaign co-chair Dr John Puntis said: “Although Lord Bethell has sought to obscure his own key role in the awarding of Covid contracts, the truth about these deals is slowly emerging.
“One lesson the government applied during the pandemic was to throw public money at cronies and supporters first, and ask about cost and quality later.
“Campaigners defending the NHS are rightly worried that this is one of the entirely wrong learning points that have been enshrined in the Health and Care Bill currently going through parliament.”
GMB national officer Rachel Harrison said that the government’s “botched” PPE procurement had been “one of the scandals of the pandemic.”
She said: “Our health workers, paramedics and carers were sent on to the front line with inadequate or non-existent PPE.
“Basically, they were thrown to the wolves by this government.
“Billions of pounds of public money has been spent on faulty PPE and funnelled into the pockets of Tory cronies.
“It boils down to incompetence or corruption.”
Lord Bethell, in today’s reply to a parliamentary question from crossbencher Lord Alton, said : “We are considering options to repurpose and recycle items in this (do not supply) category which ensures safety and value for money.
“Discussions with suppliers are ongoing.”
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