The Government is considering extending its free personal protective equipment (PPE) scheme for GPs for a further 12 months.
The programme, which sees GP practices and other health and social care providers receive free PPE from a central stock, is currently due to close at the end of March 2022.
But the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) last week launched a consultation on prolonging the scheme, saying it expects PPE usage to ‘remain at Covid-19 levels beyond March 2022’.
It added that it has ‘sufficient stock centrally’ to continue to support providers to meet their PPE needs in line with UK infection prevention and control (IPC) advice.
It said: ‘While the UK vaccination programme has been a success and restrictions are progressively coming to an end, the trajectory of the Covid-19 [virus] remains highly uncertain. We cannot therefore predict what, if any, changes will be made to the IPC guidance by 31 March 2022.
‘If IPC guidance does not recommend a change in PPE usage between now and 31 March 2022, then the same high volumes of PPE will continue to be used across the health and care system.’
The DHSC warned this would place ‘significant pressure’ on health and care costs in the next financial year if free equipment was no longer available – with the cost to providers of sourcing their own PPE estimated at £1.4bn at current volumes.
Officials said extending the scheme would be more cost-effective as the department already holds PPE centrally that would have to be ‘newly purchased’ by providers if free PPE were to end.
They said the cost of extending free PPE for 12 months would be around £600m, while closing the programme as currently planned could cost as much as £1.4bn.
And they also warned that ‘non-compliance’ with the IPC guidance could become an issue if health and social care providers were unable to bear the cost of the additional PPE required.
Around 53,000 providers, including GP practices, have registered with the scheme and they have received more than 4 billion items of PPE so far, the DHSC said.
Meanwhile, NHS England said in August that primary care networks would no longer be provided with free ‘non-vaccine related consumables’ such as handwash during the booster programme.