The British government has reportedly written off nearly $12.6 billion (£9.9 billion) worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) purchased in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an official report, the Department of Health and Social Care spent approximately $17.3 billion (£13.6 billion) on PPE between 2020 and 2022. However, a significant portion of the purchased equipment was either defective or did not meet the necessary standards set by health regulators. Some of the PPE arrived too late to be used before its expiration date.
The report states that the DHSC plans to dispose of most of its remaining stock of PPE, as it will not be utilized by the country's public health system. It is estimated that around $256 million (£202 million) has been lost to fraud, and investigations into criminal activities are ongoing. Efforts are also being made to reclaim funds spent on undelivered orders.
The Conservative-led government has faced criticism for its handling of PPE during the pandemic. The global demand for PPE surged while manufacturing in China, the largest producer of such equipment, declined due to COVID-19. The Chinese government requisitioned factories producing masks and respirators, exacerbating the international supply shortage. The UK government was accused of inadequate stockpiling of PPE prior to the pandemic.
The government's procurement process was marred by logistical challenges, with supplies not always reaching the most needed sites. Hospitals resorted to acquiring protective equipment from hardware stores and unconventional sources as traditional supply routes ran dry.
The government also faced scrutiny for establishing a "VIP lane" that expedited contracts for companies connected to serving ministers and members of the upper house. The National Crime Agency has frozen the assets of Baroness Michelle Mone, whose links to a firm contracted to supply equipment during the pandemic are being investigated for potential corruption.
In addition to the wasted and unusable orders, the government continued to pay storage costs for PPE that arrived months after the peak demand had passed.
Opposition politicians have criticized Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the period in question. They accuse him of carelessly handling taxpayers' money and failing to recover the wasted funds. The Labour party promised to appoint a commissioner to investigate COVID-related corruption and establish an "Office of Value" to assess public spending. The Liberal Democrats condemned the government's incompetence and called for an explanation from the health secretary.
Sunak's spokesperson defended the government's actions, stating that it was crucial to consider the challenging circumstances faced globally during the pandemic, with a severe shortage of PPE. The spokesperson emphasized that the government transparently prioritized securing protective equipment for frontline workers.