Care homes were left exposed and vulnerable by a lack of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, while the government’s handling of the procurement left ministers open to accusations of conflicts of interest, MPs have found.
Kevin Rawlinson www.theguardian.com
A damning report published on Wednesday by the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) concludes that the Department of Health and Social Care’s decision to prioritise hospitals for PPE meant care home workers and residents were not properly protected.
“Frontline workers were left without adequate supplies, risking their own and their families’ lives to provide treatment and care,” said the committee’s chair, Meg Hillier. “We’re at a dangerous new phase of the pandemic, in our third national lockdown with no defined end in sight. The government needs to acknowledge the errors and be better prepared.”
Ministers have been accused of running a “chumocracy” after it emerged that contracts worth £1.5bn have been awarded to firms with links to the Conservative party during the pandemic.
Many contracts were awarded without proper tender processes and departments were criticised for not publishing many of the details in the usual manner.
The committee said the episode had left the government “open to accusations of poor value for money, conflicts of interest and preferential treatment of some suppliers”, while a lack of transparency “undermines public trust in government procurement and the use of taxpayers’ money”.
The committee found also that, while the government had a plan and a stockpile of PPE in place, that proved insufficient to deal with the pandemic.
The committee said care homes only received a fraction of the PPE needed compared with the health service – and were only taken seriously after their high mortality rates became apparent.
Overall, the committee said frontline staff in both health and social care experienced shortages of PPE, with some forced to reuse single-use items as stocks ran “perilously low”.
The findings recall complaints made by the Labour MP Nadia Whittome, who spoke out about PPE shortages after working in a temporary role as a carer during the pandemic.
Surveys by staff organisations found at least 30% of care workers, doctors and nurses reported having insufficient PPE – even in high-risk settings.
“Many workers at the frontline in health and social care were put in the appalling situation of having to care for people with Covid-19 or suspected Covid-19 without sufficient PPE to protect themselves from infection,” it said.
The committee’s findings follow on from two highly critical reports published last November by the National Audit Office (NAO).
Concern over shortages of PPE was a marked feature of the early phase of the pandemic as countries around the world scrambled for scarce supplies as the disease erupted across the globe.
The committee said the situation was particularly acute in the social care sector, which did not receive “anywhere near enough” to meet its needs.
The committee criticisms over the lack of transparency around the procurement process echoed similar made by the NAO. In particular, the MPs pointed to concerns over the so-called “high priority lane”, where orders were placed with companies on the basis of recommendations from MPs or other prominent figures rather than those with expertise in the field.
“Leads that were considered more credible were those from government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords, but it is not clear why this assumption was made,” it said.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have been working tirelessly to procure, produce and deliver PPE to over 58,000 settings, protecting our health and social care staff on the frontline of this pandemic.
“As the public accounts committee recognises, the government faced significant challenges in having to rapidly procure PPE at pace in a competitive international market. Thanks to the combined effort of government, NHS, armed forces, civil servants and industry we have delivered over 8.1bn items of PPE at record speed.”