Exclusive: Millions of pieces of PPE are being shipped from Britain to Europe despite NHS shortages

Millions of pieces of vital protective equipment are being shipped from British warehouses to Germany, Spain and Italy despite severe shortages in this country, The Telegraph can disclose.

Lorries are being packed with masks, respirators and other PPE kit before heading back to supply hospitals in the EU, it has emerged.

By Bill Gardner 21 April 2020  www.telegraph.co.uk

On Monday night, UK firms said they had “no choice” but to keep selling the lifesaving gear abroad because their offers of help had been repeatedly ignored by the Government.

It comes as the Government faces growing criticism over the PPE crisis with hospitals close to running out of critical equipment, and doctors forced to choose between exposing themselves to the virus or “letting a patient die on their watch”.  

On Sunday, 12 million pieces of PPE were delivered to the health care sector, down from 33 million less than a fortnight ago. 

Ministers have insisted that the shortage of PPE has been caused by global supply issues as nations scramble to source reusable gear from factories in China. Former London Olympics chief Lord Deighton has been brought in to boost PPE production in this country. A much-needed shipment of 140,000 gowns arrived from Myanmar on Monday.

However, UK wholesalers revealed that their warehouses were already full of millions of pieces of PPE bought from China which were now being delivered every day to EU countries for use by frontline health workers.

Three lorries registered in Italy arrived on Monday at a warehouse owned by Veenak International, a Birmingham-based pharmaceutical wholesaler, where they took delivery of 750,000 surgical masks before heading back across the Channel.

Last week alone the firm packed five million surgical masks, more than a million FFP2 respirators and more than half a million FFP3 respirators stored inside three warehouses in Birmingham and outside Heathrow Airport on to lorries registered in the EU, a source revealed.

The company, which distributes pharmaceutical products across the UK and Europe, buys PPE from factories in China and takes a new delivery every week. Currently it has millions of pounds’ worth of PPE sitting in its warehouses, sources said.

Pictures taken inside the Veenak warehouse show boxes of PPE bought from China emblazoned with the message: “British keep fighting! You are not the only one that is fighting, we will be with you! We are waves of the same ocean!” The equipment inside is now due to be sold overseas.

Shan Hassam, chief executive of Veenak International, did not wish to discuss commercial arrangements but added: “We are a very patriotic company and we want to do all we can to help the NHS.

“We stand ready to prioritise our British customers if given the opportunity to do so.”

The company has managed to supply the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust with a number of face shields and goggles after sidestepping the government’s procurement process, it is understood. 

Dr Simon Festing, chief executive of the British Healthcare Trades Association, confirmed that “a number of our members” are continuing to sell PPE abroad after offers of help went unanswered.

“It’s an extremely difficult time for businesses and if they can’t supply to the UK then their commercial arrangements are likely to continue,” he said.

Meanwhile an analysis by The Telegraph appears to show a significant decline in the supply of PPE, with the number of items delivered on Sunday April 19 down by more than 50 per cent on 10 days ago. 

During a conference call with manufacturers on Monday, Cabinet Office officials admitted gowns would now need to be made in the UK amid a global shortage of crucial fabrics and machinery.

Officials are understood to be considering widening requirements so that textile factories can produce woven gowns using materials available in this country.

A source at the UK Fashion & Textile Association said the UK had been left “at the back of the queue” for the crucial materials and machines used to make fluid-repellent non-woven gowns after ministers initially pursued orders from China.

“It may well now be too late to get this off the ground properly,” the source said.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic row between the UK and Turkey broke out on Monday night after an RAF plane was finally dispatched to pick up 84 tonnes of lifesaving kit.

Turkish officials claimed that the UK had only submitted a formal request for the equipment on Sunday after Downing Street blamed “problems on the Turkish end”.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “We know for a fact that the first orders of additional PPE were placed on January 30. If those orders had actually come in to time and quality, then we wouldn’t have been in this position.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the Government would “pursue every possible option” to secure more PPE for the UK.

At Monday’s Downing Street press conference, Mr Sunak said: “This is an international challenge that many other countries are experiencing.

“Alongside the efforts of British businesses, and our embassies around the world, we are working hard to get the PPE our frontline NHS and social care staff need.”

Last month the EU imposed an export ban on some medical protective equipment in a bid to keep sufficient supplies within the bloc. In the US, President Trump has banned “unscrupulous actors and profiteers” from exporting critical medical gear used to protect wearers from the coronavirus, although restrictions on Canada and Mexico have since been relaxed.

Greg Clark, chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee, said it was “clearly wrong” that vital PPE supplies are being taken out of this country when hospitals are in desperate need.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that firms are selling PPE to other countries after failing to make headway with the authorities,” he said.

“I’d caution against banning exports of PPE altogether, though. If you do that, other countries might reciprocate and we’d be in an even worse situation.”

A new website, developed with the help of the military, is being rolled out over the next few weeks to improve distribution and will enable primary, social and community care providers in England to order critical PPE.