Covid in Scotland: Key items of PPE came 'close' to running out

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image source, Getty Images
image captionGlobal demand for PPE surged in 2020, causing prices to double

Central stocks of some items of personal protective equipment (PPE) came within eight hours of running out in April 2020, a report has found.

Audit Scotland said a stockpile of key items such as long-sleeved gowns had run "very low" early in the pandemic.

Its report examines how the Scottish government and NHS Scotland managed PPE arrangements.

The Scottish government welcomed the report and said Scotland had never run out of PPE.

But the BMA's Scottish Consultants Committee said it added to the "clear evidence" that Scotland was "not effectively prepared" to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak last year.

'Very concerning'

The committee's chairman, Dr Graeme Eunson, said: "It is very concerning to see how short supplies actually were in April last year, and that reflects the real issues and worries we were raising at the time on behalf of our members - and indeed all health and care staff across Scotland who were working throughout the pandemic.

"Nevertheless, it is also important to acknowledge the considerable, and rapid work that went into improving the situation and getting PPE to those frontline workers."

Audit Scotland also found the surge in prices for PPE cost NHS National Services Scotland (NHS NSS) £37.4m over what it would have normally paid for the safety equipment.

A similar study carried out at a UK level by the National Audit Office estimated the UK spent £10bn extra in inflated prices for PPE due to an "inadequate" stockpile and the surge in global demand early in the pandemic.

The Audit Scotland report reiterated its earlier finding that the Scottish government did not fully implement recommendations from pandemic preparedness exercises.

It also said the government could have done more to ensure access to PPE and training in its use.

As global demand surged and overseas factories closed, PPE prices doubled in early 2020.

The report said: "Had NHS NSS been able to buy PPE at the same prices as 2019, it would have spent £37.4m less on PPE stock in the first five months of the pandemic."

Centrally-held stocks of certain key items were "very low" in April 2020, with just eight hours' worth of long-sleeved gowns stored by NHS NSS.

However, individual health boards may have had additional supplies of PPE items, the report noted.

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Scotland's PPE supplies

  • £37.4min increased spending as prices doubled

  • 1.1bnitems of PPE issued in 12 months

  • £340mof PPE contracts awarded

Source: Audit Scotland

The report went on to say that 78 contracts worth £340m were awarded to companies providing PPE between March 2020 and June 2021.

A total of 29 of these contracts, worth £98m, were awarded to new suppliers with no competition.

NHS NSS distributed 1.1 billion items of PPE between March 2020 and April 2021.

The report recommended taking a longer-term approach to procuring PPE, including planning for future pandemics.

It noted NHS NSS was already developing a new stock management system and renting warehouses for PPE.

Stephen Boyle, auditor general for Scotland, said: "The Scottish government and NHS National Services Scotland worked well together under extremely challenging circumstances to set up new arrangements for the supply and distribution of PPE to health and social care settings.

"The challenge now will be in developing a longer-term approach to PPE supply and distribution that includes both business as usual needs as well as preparing for future pandemics."

image source, Getty Images
image captionNHS NSS is responsible for holding and distributing central stocks of PPE

In March this year, MSPs on a Holyrood committee urged the auditor general to publish the PPE spending report faster, saying the UK National Audit Office had produced its findings in November 2020.

Scottish Conservative health spokeswoman Annie Wells said: "This Audit Scotland report once again exposes the reality of PPE shortages in Scotland at the height of the pandemic.

"Despite the SNP's spin that PPE supplies never ran out, this report makes clear that at critical moments, less than a day of some key supplies were available.

"As frontline staff have made clear, the reality is that our NHS was just hours away from disaster because of PPE shortages."

'Essential supplies'

Mary Morgan, chief executive of NHS NSS, said the report recognised the "crucial role" played by NSS in ensuring Scotland never ran out of critical PPE during the pandemic.

"Our national procurement teams worked 24/7 to overcome unprecedented global demand and the collapse of international supply chains," she said.

"They worked with partners to develop new supply routes to support our social care colleagues, and made direct deliveries to ensure primary care teams received their essential supplies.

"The decisions taken in spring of 2020 had to be made urgently to reduce the risk of our NHS being overwhelmed."

Ms Morgan added that lessons learned during the pandemic had already been implemented.

A Scottish government spokesperson said Covid-19 had brought "unprecedented global demand" for PPE.

"In the first phase of the pandemic, there were collapses in the international PPE supply chain, combined with greatly increased levels of demand for PPE in Scotland and around the world.

"Scotland never ran out of PPE. Work undertaken by the Scottish government and its partner organisations at that time included setting up a whole new Scottish supply chain from scratch, with the creation of hundreds of jobs.

"The Scottish government agrees with Audit Scotland that we need to learn from this pandemic and bring that learning into planning for future pandemics - and that work is already under way."