Almost £15bn worth of Covid supplies including personal protective equipment (PPE), vaccines, and lateral flow tests have been wasted, the Government’s own watchdog has found.
The spending was revealed in the by the DHSC’s annual accounts and financial report for 2021/22m which was accompanied by an unusually critical report from the head of the National Audit Office (NAO).
Meg Hillier MP, the chair of the Commons’ public accounts committee, which oversees the NAO, said the accounts showed ‘extraordinary waste’ by the DHSC.
Adding that the money wasted was ‘another reminder to Whitehall about the vital importance of proper controls in public procurement, including during a crisis’.
The accounts revealed that the DHSC had a £6bn ‘write-down’ on items acquired in the pandemic, meaning that items acquired on the DHSC accounts had lost this much value since purchase.
The Department had a £3.5bn write-down on PPE, vaccines, and medication that were no longer intended to be used, and a £2.5bn write-down on £11.2bn of equipment for which the Government had paid above the market price, NAO found.
That equipment included £1.5bn of PPE, £5.8bn of Covid-detecting lateral flow tests and PCR tests procured by the test-and-trace programme, £2.7bn worth of vaccines to fight the virus and £1.2bn of various drugs that hospitals used to treat patients.
The report also disclosed that it expects to spend £319m storing and disposing of PPE which is no longer needed and is of such poor quality that it is no use to frontline staff anyway.
Additionally, the audit found that the DHSC was unable to verify the quantity and quality of vast amounts of PPE and lateral flow tests as 5bn items, worth £2.9bn, were stored in containers which there was no adequate procedure to access.
The Labour party criticised the Government’s handling of public accounts in the acquisition of Covid supplies, with shadow health secretary Wes Streeting saying in statement: ‘The Conservatives can never again claim to be the careful stewards of the public finances.
‘While Rishi Sunak had control of the purse strings, a staggering £15bn of public money was wasted on useless PPE – enough to fund the police force for an entire year. Instead, that money is now literally going up in smoke. Taxpayers will rightly judge the carelessness with which the Conservatives treat their money to be an absolute scandal.’
The NAO also found that there was ‘a lack of adequate governance, oversight and control’ and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). Noting that ‘because of a “lack of sufficient, appropriate audit evidence and significant shortcomings in financial control,’ the NAO was unable to provide an audit opinion on the agency’s 2021-22 accounts.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: ‘Even taking into account the challenging context, it is unacceptable that UKHSA has not been able to produce auditable accounts and provide the transparency and assurance that Parliament needs.
‘When setting up new bodies, it is essential that basic governance arrangements are put in place. DHSC and UKHSA must work with HM Treasury to get on track to produce auditable accounts.’
A Government spokesperson said: ‘It is misleading to say that £14.9bn of taxpayers’ money has been wasted. In the face of an unprecedented pandemic, we had to compete in an overheated global market to procure items to protect the public, frontline health and care workers and our NHS.
‘Buying vital Covid vaccines and medicines also helped save countless lives and keep NHS and care staff safe. Our approach meant that we were the first country in the world to deploy an approved Covid vaccine, with 144 million doses administered, and we have delivered over 25 billion items of PPE to the frontline.’
Earlier this month, DHSC said free PPE for GP practices has been extended until 31 March 2024, or until stocks are depleted.
A version of this article was first published by Pulse’s sister title Nursing in Practice