Social care providers received just 10% of their estimated need for PPE

New figures show failure of national schemes to deliver personal protective equipment to social care providers at the height of the pandemic.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has released damning figures showing that just 10% of the required amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) was delivered to social care providers through national schemes at the height of the pandemic.

The adult social care sector received approximately 331 million items of PPE from central government between March and July – 14% of the total PPE distributed – compared with 1.9 billion items sent to NHS trusts – 81% of PPE distributed which met 80% of their estimated need.

The figures also showed that the number of gowns held in stock on 21 April was just 3% of the estimated daily requirement to manage COVID-19.

The NAO found that a global surge for PPE, combined with a fall in exports from China (the country that manufactures the most PPE) created an “overheated global market − a ‘sellers’ market’ − with desperate customers competing against each other, pushing up prices, and buying huge volumes of PPE often from suppliers that were new to the PPE market.”

This resulted in an ‘enormous’ £12.5bn spend, with individual unit prices for some PPE items increasing by 166% for respirator masks, and up to a 1310% increase for body bags.

NHS and social care representatives also criticised government guidance on PPE and how it was communicated, with guidance changing 30 separate times between January 10 and 31 July.

Social care representatives expressed concerns that much of the guidance was explained for healthcare settings and had not been tailored for social care settings, even when it was labelled explicitly as being for social care.

The NHS provider organisations consulted for the report said that while they were concerned about the low stocks of PPE, they were always able to get what they needed in time. However, this was not the experience reported by many front-line workers. The report said, however: “Feedback from care workers, doctors and nurses show that significant numbers of them considered that they were not adequately protected during the height of the first wave of the pandemic.”

The cost of PPE during the pandemic was also found to have increased financial pressure on the adult social care sector, though the Government has allocated additional funding to local authorities to help them deal with the impact of COVID-19 and has committed to provide free PPE to care homes over winter.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “As PPE stockpiles were inadequate for the pandemic, government needed to take urgent action to boost supplies. Once it recognised the gravity of the situation it worked hard to source PPE, but most of these orders were not received in time for the first wave of the pandemic and many front-line workers reported shortages of PPE during that time. The price of PPE increased dramatically, and that alone has cost the taxpayer around £10 billion.

“There are important lessons for government to learn as it continues to tackle the pandemic. This includes fully understanding not just the requirements of the NHS, but also social care providers so that they can be better supported in future.”

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