Providers felt pressurised and unsupported while obtaining PPE, report finds

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Care providers felt under pressure and unsupported when trying to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE) at the beginning of the pandemic, with some suppliers offering products that did not meet standards.

Findings in a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) showed adult social care providers felt they were not adequately supported by government in obtaining PPE and were close to running out.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told the NAO it took different approaches to supporting social care and trusts during the pandemic. The report said: ‘None of the social care providers and their representative organisations we spoke to knew of any adult social care provider running out of PPE completely. However, they noted that, if a provider had run out of PPE, it might be disinclined to admit to that because of the reputational risk.’

Providers either accessed supplies from wholesalers or from local resilience forums and DHSC’s helpline. The sector received 331 million items of PPE from government between March and July (14% of the total PPE distributed and 10% of their estimated need). This compared with 1.9 billion items sent to NHS trusts in that period (81% of PPE distributed and 80% of estimated need).

Between February and July 2020, DHSC spent £12.5bn on 32 billion items of PPE.

There were large increases in the price paid for PPE compared with 2019 due to the global surge in demand and restrictions on exports in some countries. This ranged from a 166% increase for respirator masks to a 1,310% increase for body bags. At 2019 prices, cost of PPE to July 2020 would have been £2.5bn.

The report, The supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic, said: ‘Many social care providers reported that it was only due to their own considerable efforts to source PPE that they were able to continue providing services. Providers told us that they often found it difficult to find suppliers that could provide PPE that met standards and, when they did, prices were hugely inflated.

‘Some reported feeling pressured to pay upfront, and we also heard that some suppliers offered PPE that did not meet standards.’

In September, DHSC published a PPE strategy which aims to increase its stockpile, a much larger UK manufacturing base, a better distribution network, and an improved understanding of the needs of health and care organisations. PPE will be provided to people in adult social care settings for free as part of the government’s winter plan for the sector.

‘There are important lessons for government to learn as it continues to tackle the pandemic, said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO. ‘This includes fully understanding not just the requirements of the NHS, but also social care providers so that they can be better supported in future.’