More than 300m expired PPE items in UK stockpile

There have been calls for an inquiry into the waste as figures from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) show that masks, gloves, aprons and other items worth £303m have expired.

More than 300m items of PPE in the government’s national stockpile cannot be used by frontline health workers because they have passed their expiry date, The Independent can reveal.

Some of the supplies went out of date in March 2020, while “a very small quantity” had already expired years before the beginning of the pandemic, according to data obtained by a Freedom of Information request.

Britain has an excess supply of personal protective equipment, and critics believe that surplus items should have been donated to countries in need, rather than being hoarded and allowed to expire.

“An inquiry needs to be held into why such crucial public health assets have been allowed to go to waste,” said former prime minister Gordon Brown, who has campaigned against rich countries buying up vaccine and medical supplies.

Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow secretary of state for international trade, said it was “staggering” that the government had wasted £300 million’s worth of PPE.

“At the start of this pandemic hospitals, care homes and GPs were all struggling to acquire the PPE and now 20 months later we are seeing hundreds of thousands of items wasted,” he said.

“Ministers should have known when the PPE was going to expire. This is shocking incompetence – people with genuine need of PPE could have been provided with it and were not.”

The government does not have a full picture of how many PPE items in its stockpile are expired and in need of disposing, raising concern that NHS staff on the frontline have been supplied with improper protective equipment.

The DHSC said its figures for out-of-date PPE were estimates and that it was “not able to answer directly what volume of stock has been thrown away”.

According to the DHSC’s data, relevant to 10 December 2021, there are 15,439,921 expired gowns in the national stockpile, which cost £90.2 million to buy. Alongside this, there are 46,191,482 eye protectors, 7,246,301 gloves and more than 120 million face masks that have all passed their expiry date.

In total, £299,136,996 has been spent by the government on PPE that later expired, compromising the protection provided by the items and making them unsuitable for use on the frontline.

“This huge cost is going to be the mere tip of the iceberg as time passes, and more and more PPE goes off,” said Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, highlighting a National Audit Office report which found that the UK bought five years’ worth of personal protective equipment at five times the normal cost.

Officials said the government is considering “the potential to extend expiry dates, which would involve testing to ensure products are still compliant”.

However, this comes after the British Medical Association warned that frontline NHS staff need higher quality face masks to fight the spread of Omicron in hospitals.

“With a highly-transmissible new strain now circulating … healthcare workers must be given the best possible protection against the virus from the moment they step into their place of work,” said Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair.

To avoid PPE going to waste throughout the pandemic, campaigners have repeatedly called on the government to gift its excess supplies to poorer nations.

However, as revealed last week by The Independent, UK has been prevented from donating “tens of millions” of surplus items due to Whitehall red tape.

Up until September, international donations counted as overseas development assistance (ODA). For the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which oversees the UK’s PPE stockpile, its annual foreign aid budget was set at £160m.

“That was the hard barrier we could spend on ODA,” said one Whitehall source. “In February/March 2021, we had PPE valued more than that which we had spare and at risk of expiry.

“But we’d already spent our ODA allocation for the year.

“We didn’t lobby HMT for the waiver of this rule as the mood music coming from FCDO was that they wouldn’t support us.”

It took seven months for the rule to be eventually dropped, during which time millions of excess gloves, aprons and masks are feared to have expired.

“There was anxiety that wastage could top tens of millions or more,” the source said. “Which is why not being able to donate it overseas become so problematic. Because that would prevent waste and improve healthcare overseas.”

Throughout the pandemic, the DHSC has only donated PPE supplies to Nepal and Lebanon, 20,000 and 187,000 items respectively. Some 300,000 items of PPE have also been handed to the UK’s Overseas Territories.

This is a total of 507,000 items – the equivalent of 0.000003 per cent of the UK’s overall stockpile, which is made up of 14.6 billion PPE items.

Labour’s Mr Thomas-Symonds said: “Not only have ministers failed to make full use of available PPE here in this country, they have also failed to ensure that surplus supplies went to countries needing them.”

A DHSC spokesperson said: “Where we have surplus stock, we have a range of measures to handle disposal, including recycling, re-using, donations elsewhere or return or recovery of costs via the supplier. Items of PPE would not normally be thrown away, even if they have expired.

“Throughout the pandemic we have done everything we can to support other nations, including offering donations of PPE where there is an immediate need.”

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