Contracts signed by the UK with international suppliers for kit to safeguard health workers were “not worth the paper they were written on” after countries imposed export bans in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, a senior NHS official said on Thursday.
Mark Roscrow, director of NHS Wales’s shared services procurement, told MPs that contracts that had been placed for emergency deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the event of a pandemic were rendered worthless during the Covid-19 outbreak after countries including France and Germany prohibited the export of the kit.
As the coronavirus crisis took hold, countries around the world began imposing bans on the export of certain medical goods, including PPE, in order to retain supplies for their own populations.
The World Health Organization warned that this was putting pressure on global supply chains and meant that health workers could be left in unsafe conditions.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons international trade committee, Mr Roscrow gave the example of a delivery of masks from France, which had been expected to arrive in the UK in January, but was stopped “almost at the last minute”.
The shipment was one of a “just in case, just in time” arrangement, agreed by the UK government with international suppliers and designed for use if an influenza pandemic were to occur, he said.
Mr Roscrow added that the contract with a French company for the masks was “triggered” as the Covid-19 outbreak unfolded, and there was an expectation among NHS officials that the PPE delivery would be made, but it was not. “There were a number of other [such agreements],” he added.
“It does bring into question the worth of those contracts and those arrangements . . . To all intents and purposes they weren’t worth the paper they were written on because we didn’t get the products,” Mr Roscrow said.
As the death toll among the UK population, including health workers, continues to rise, the government has come under fire for failing to secure enough PPE for doctors, nurses and carers.
Ministers were embroiled in controversy on Tuesday, after Simon McDonald, the top civil servant at the Foreign Office, told MPs that Britain had taken a “political decision” not to participate in an EU procurement scheme for medical goods including PPE, only to subsequently retract his remarks and pivot to previous UK government claims that a communication mishap was responsible.
Asked whether he thought being part of the EU scheme would have alleviated current PPE shortages, Mr Roscrow said he was not convinced it would have been “any more beneficial” than Britain trying to secure its own products.
Other emergency plans to support the UK’s PPE stocks have also proven inadequate, MPs were told.
Peter Ellingworth, chief executive of the Association of British HealthTech Industries, a trade body, said there had been PPE stockpiles saved for a potential flu pandemic and supplies built up in case of a no-deal Brexit, but they had been insufficient, given the scale of the coronavirus crisis.
He added that demand had been “exponential” and had “trumped any prior planning”.
“We’re not talking about three to six months’ supply, we’re talking about several years’ supply suddenly being demanded,” said Mr Ellingworth.
Mr Roscrow said the range of PPE items in the flu pandemic stockpiles was “limited”, while the Brexit supplies were for “business as usual” products rather than some of the more specialised kit required to combat Covid-19.
Samuel Roscoe, senior lecturer in operations management at the University of Sussex, said the virus crisis had made “very clear” that complex international supply chains for medical goods including PPE “have a number of points of failure”, and that a system was “only as strong as its weakest link”.
He said that 54 different export restrictions on such goods had been put in place around the world since January, not all of which were still there, but these had hampered the flow of crucial medical supplies.