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PPE Bonfire: £4 billion up in flames

Opinion Piece: As the Government plans to reuse unused face masks and other equipment for fuel, we examine the criticism of the investment and environmental concerns.

Millions of unused masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) bought during the height of the coronavirus pandemic are to be burnt and used to generate power, under new government plans.

As the pandemic began to unfold in 2019, countries around the world were desperate for PPE, hugely spiking demand and subsequently prices of such equipment. Many nations, including the UK, had to pay billions to secure the needed PPE for health professionals to tackle the virus. However, as the market price of the equipment dropped, billions of pounds had to be written off from the public accounts.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee – which scrutinises government spending – said that between 2020-21, the Department of Health spent £12 billion on PPE, but £8.7 billion had to be written off from the drop in the market price and lots of the equipment not meeting NHS standards.

Committee chairwoman Dame Meg Hillier, a Labour MP, said: “The story of PPE purchasing is perhaps the most shameful episode of the UK government response to the pandemic.

“At the start of the pandemic health service and social care staff were left to risk their own and their families’ lives due to the lack of basic PPE.

“In a desperate bid to catch up the government splurged huge amounts of money, paying obscenely inflated prices and payments to middlemen in a chaotic rush during which they chucked out even the most cursory due diligence.”

The committees criticism extended to front line healthcare staff. Royal College of Nursing chief executive Pat Cullen said nurses would find the report “galling”, adding: “If this money had been used more wisely and decent quality PPE bought in the first place, then nurses’ lives might have been saved.”

The Department of Health responded to the Committee’s scrutiny said their claims were “misleading” and that purchasing PPE in the inflated market was necessary, with one spokesman stating “we make no apology for procuring too much PPE rather than too little”.

To burn or not to burn

Now the Government has billions of faulty PPE stockpiled away, two commercial waste partners have been hired to dispose of the equipment through a mixture of recycling and burning to generate power. The Department of Health insists it holds a clear strategy for disposing the items adding that it was using “a range of measures to manage excess stock of PPE” such as donating equipment to charities and transport agencies.

However the decision to burn these stockpiles has naturally provoked a response of environmental concern. The Public Accounts Committee warned the costs and environmental impact were “unclear” and asked the department to set out full details of how the equipment would be discarded.

Final thought

The Government are clearly trying to make the best of a bad situation here. Given the current cost-of-living crisis, tax rises to tackle the national debt and burnt out NHS staff – admitting to a £4 billion loss of tax payers money to faulty PPE is evidently damaging. Given the pressing height of the pandemic the Government’s actions to secure PPE is understandable, but diligence in ensuring such protective equipment was safe for staff and patients was clearly absent.

Boris Johnson’s administration seem to have stumbled into another hornets nest through burning the useless equipment, a move that contradicts their commitment to environmental conservation – mainly Net Zero by 2050.

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