Billions have been “splurged” on PPE some of which is now going to be burned, a committee of MPs says.
Millions of unused masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) bought at the height of the Covid pandemic are to be burned or recycled.
The government says it will use the fires to generate power – but a spending watchdog has attacked the cost and environmental impact of the plan.
The Public Accounts Committee said some of the £4bn worth of unused PPE did not meet NHS standards.
But the Department of Health said the committee’s claims were “misleading”.
A spokesman said: “We make no apology for procuring too much PPE rather than too little, and only 3% of the PPE we procured was unusable in any context.”
The report by the Public Accounts Committee – which scrutinises government spending – said that between 2020-21, the Department of Health spent £12bn on PPE, but £8.7bn had to be written off.
At the start of the pandemic, countries around the world were clamouring for PPE which sent prices soaring.
The Department of Health has argued that it was better to purchase PPE despite the “globally inflated market” rather than risk running out of equipment.
A total of £4.7bn was written off because the market price of PPE at the end of the year was lower than the price paid at the height of the pandemic.
The committee says a further £4bn was lost because equipment, such as masks and gowns, did not meet NHS standards, was defective or not needed.
It said the government had hired two commercial waste partners to get rid of the unused items – amounting to 15,000 pallets a month – through a combination of recycling and burning to generate power.
The 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.
The Department of Health insisted it did have 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.
The committee was critical of the department’s overall provision of PPE at the start of the pandemic describing it as “haphazard” and noting that 24% of the PPE contracts awarded were now in dispute.
Labour committee chair Dame Meg Hillier 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.”
She added the department had been failing to comply with rules on managing public money before the pandemic and suggested “inappropriate unauthorised payoffs made to staff by health bodies”, as part of planned large-scale NHS restructuring, was “increasing the risk of this happening again.”
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.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Ministers have been carelessly burning taxpayers’ money by the billion as unusable gowns, goggles, and gloves literally go up in flames.”