Edward Argar – 2022 Statement on PPE Stock Management

The statement made by Edward Argar, the Minister for Health, in the House of Commons on 31 March 2022.

The Government rightly prioritised saving lives throughout this pandemic. The scale of the challenge we faced should not be underestimated. We have worked tirelessly to source lifesaving PPE, delivering more than 19.1 billion items to protect frontline health and care staff.

Global demand for PPE reached unparalleled levels at the outset of the pandemic, which resulted in huge disruption across the market for PPE.

Our fight was against a new infection and at the outset, the data to determine what PPE the health and care sectors needed did not exist. Requirement for supplies was initially forecast on reasonable worst-case scenario modelling, and we now know less PPE was needed in practice.

However, in a fast-moving world of tough choices too much was preferable to too little given this was about saving lives. We had to plan for the worst. As the orders were being placed during the height of the crisis, when the market was extremely volatile, we had to factor in the likely non-performance of contracts.

We are now in a position where we have high confidence that we have sufficient stock to cover all future covid-19 related demands, even in the face of new variants of concern such as we have seen with omicron and with cases of the BA.2 lineage rising.

Not only this, but we now have the capability to produce most of what we need here in the UK across all categories except for gloves.

Where we have surplus stock, including stock that has turned out not to be suitable for use in the NHS, we have employed a range of measures to reduce it including selling, re-using and donating both in this country and internationally, recycling, and by pursuing return or recovery of costs through the original supplier.

Where products have failed quality assurance, or if products were ordered that have not arrived, the Department is taking action to determine whether a breach of contract has occurred. The investigations into contracts where we have some degree of dissatisfaction due to our high standards of quality control, or due to clear contractual breach, relate to 176 contracts.

We are working through the dispute resolution process and we are aiming to recoup significant amounts. The Department has already reduced the supply of PPE by varying and curtailing contracts. As at 18 December, the Department had negotiated the cancellation or variation of contracts to reduce the original supply of PPE by 1.21 billion items that would have cost £572 million.

Sales

To date we have achieved the sale of 330 million masks to two private companies, and we have other deals in the pipeline.

We are also about to launch an online auction to sell PPE, so individuals and companies may bid for our excess stock. Details are available on Gov.UK.

Repurposing

There are a number of items that meet all technical requirements and are suitable for use in the NHS, but they are not the preferred option. For example, self-construct visors which take four to six minutes to build were not overly appropriate for clinical settings with high usage.

However, the items were high quality and have been used in settings which allow for less time-pressured set up, such as by dentists.

Similarly, flatpack aprons have been able to be distributed for use in social care settings.

Shelf-life extension

We are exploring shelf-life extension for items that are in demand.

The Department has appointed a third-party medical laboratory to provide testing of certain categories of PPE products to see how viable it is to extend their shelf life without the products being compromised where this fits with our overall plans.

Donations

We have donated a large number of products domestically to support this country’s road to recovery underpinned by the fantastic success of our vaccination rollout. This includes 207 million masks being supplied to our schools so that pupils could get back to learning in classrooms with their peers and 38 million to transport operators to help get Britain moving once again as we begin to live with the virus. Masks have also been distributed to charities and polling stations.

Having this stock has also allowed us to provide items across the world to support the global fight against the virus.

So far, working with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we have donated 500,000 items to Lebanon, Nepal and Overseas Territories and are in discussions with other countries and multilateral organisations, working to finalise agreements and logistics with over 30 countries. We have also donated to Ukraine, as part of a wider package of UK Government support.

Recycling

After successful trials, we have now recycled 23 million visors into plastic food trays. We are also in the process of recycling 53 thousand pallets of aprons and eye protectors; aprons are being made into bin bags, “Bags for Life” and other high-demand products.

Disposals

Our priorities are to sell, donate, repurpose or recycle wherever we can. Nevertheless, there are some PPE products that we cannot reuse or recycle. The majority of PPE items are designed to be single use and disposed of as medical waste and so are often made up of complex chains of polymers. These items cannot be broken down for recycling. As a result, many of the products we hold are not able to be fully recycled and around half are completely non-recyclable.

We have awarded contracts to two expert waste service providers. These lead waste providers will review the feasibility of recycling each item across our excess and provide detailed options.

To reduce storage costs, we must accelerate the speed of our programme, particularly for stock that is likely to become out-of-date before it is ever used and is unsuitable for recycling. For every pallet of PPE we sell, repurpose, donate and recycle, taxpayers save on average £2.75 a week for years to come.

The amount taxpayers will save from taking this decisive action would, for example, be enough to employ around 1,850 nurses for a year.

We will work with our lead waste providers to examine wider disposal options including through “energy from waste” processes. Environmental concerns will be key, and we will be taking into consideration the Government’s waste hierarchy, prioritising recycling, and then energy from waste for that proportion of stock which we hold that cannot be recycled.

Our priorities are to keep selling, repurposing and donating the stock that we can but at the same time taking a realistic, pragmatic approach to managing stock and putting in place solutions that make sense economically and environmentally.