The government plans to burn up to £4bn of unused personal protective equipment (PPE) bought during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The environmental impact and cost of this are unclear, the PAC stated. During 2020-21, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spent a total of £12bn on PPE, including face masks and gowns for health and care workers, according to its own report on spending for that year. The committee said that £8.7bn of that sum has been “written off”, £4bn of which was spent on millions of protective items that didn’t meet NHS standards and remain unused. Some £4.7bn was also “written down” to reflect inflated market prices for PPE in 2020.
As part of its outlay, the department reportedly bought £673m worth of PPE – some 817 million items – that are “defective and cannot be used, donated or sold to anyone. This includes masks identified as being counterfeit; and gowns that are not water-repellent.”
To dispose of the PPE, two commercial waste partners will remove 15,000 pallets of the NHS’s PPE mountain a month using a combination of recycling and burning for energy, according to the PAC report. Incineration for energy is very controversial, with opponents highlighting the impact of burning plastic waste on air quality and increased emissions from the toxic fumes released. Incinerators are also more likely to be in low-income areas and in communities with more people of colour, according to Greenpeace. In 2021, incinerators in England produced 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide at a cost of £1.9bn, according to the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “Burning up to £4bn pounds of taxpayers’ money worth of unusable PPE to ‘generate power’ smacks of real desperation – it only highlights how disastrous DHSC’s management of this crisis was and the poor position it was in even before the pandemic.”
She added that incinerating the PPE is “surely a horribly inefficient, costly and environmentally risky endeavour – that it may be the best option now is a damning indictment and shows the ongoing, unacceptable costs of the department’s failures.”
The Public Accounts Committee also concluded that the Department of Health “regularly failed to follow public spending rules”, and that the Covid crisis exposed “weaknesses in the department’s commercial contracting capability”.
In the early stages of the pandemic, when demand for PPE spiked globally and manufacturing capacity was hampered by lockdowns, items were purchased from new suppliers. The department reviewed the 364 PPE contracts it entered into during the pandemic and found concerns with 48 per cent of them – 176 contracts in total. Of those, 59 are still being negotiated, 27 are in legal review and three are in mediation. One contract for 3.5 billion gloves is subject to allegations of modern slavery against the manufacturer.
Hillier said: “That is £4bn of our national health budget literally up in smoke – plus all the costs of carrying out this ‘plan’ – at a moment of terrible stress and challenges in our National Health Service. How did it come to this, and how will DHSC ensure nothing like this ever happens again? We on PAC are far from convinced the government is working well toward those answers.”
A DHSC spokesperson noted that most of the £8.7bn figure reflects the globally inflated market at the time of purchase, saying, “It was better to do that than risk running out of PPE and endangering lives.” They also said that reports that £4bn of PPE is going to be burned were “misleading” as the department is “using a range of measures to manage excess stock of PPE” and that only three percent of the PPE is “not fit for any purpose”. They added that “in the face of an unpredictable and dangerous virus, we make no apology for procuring too much PPE rather than too little”.