Labour slams “shameful” waste as government plans to burn unusable PPE

Elliot Chappell
© Pranav Kukreja/

Angela Rayner has criticised “the shameful and toxic waste of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives” as a new report has outlined how the government intends to burn £4bn of unusable personal protective equipment bought during the pandemic.

The report, published by the public accounts committee today, found that the Department for Health and Social Care lost 75% of the £12bn it spent on PPE in the first year of the pandemic to inflated prices and kit that did not meet requirements.

In the 24-page document, the cross-party committee set out how £4bn of the £9bn wasted was spent buying PPE that the NHS will not use and now needs disposing of, and that the government told the committee that it “plans to burn significant volumes” of the unused equipment and will “aim to generate power from this”.

“Ministers have been carelessly burning taxpayers’ money by the billion as unusable gowns, goggles and gloves literally go up in flames,” the deputy Labour leader said.

“On [PPE], they got the big calls hopelessly wrong as ministers lined the pockets of their cronies with public money using their illegal VIP fast lane while failing key workers on the frontline. It is outright incompetence and downright sleaze.”

According to the report, the government has appointed two commercial waste partners to help it dispose of 15,000 pallets per month of PPE through a combination of recycling and burning. The authors wrote: “The costs and environmental impact of disposing of the excess and unusable PPE is unclear.”

Procuring PPE “overwhelmed existing systems and has exposed weaknesses in the department’s commercial contracting capability”, the committee reported, adding: “As a result of its haphazard purchasing strategy, the department also has problems with a large number of the PPE contracts it entered into.”

A departmental review of the 364 contracts entered into found concerns with 176 (48%). 24% of these are in dispute: being either under commercial negotiation, legal review or in mediation. One disputed contract, for 3.5 billion gloves, involves a manufacturer against whom allegations of modern slavery have been made.

Rayner added: “The Covid public inquiry must be free of the Prime Minister’s interference so it can get to the bottom of this scandal. Ministers must face the full consequences of their wasteful negligence and unforgivable corruption. Labour will treat taxpayers’ money with the respect it deserves.”

The PAC also wrote in its report that there is “no clear plan for how big the PPE stockpile needs to be and how the department will build greater resilience into the NHS supply chain so that it can respond at pace to future urgent needs”.

The cross-party committee found that the department has not decided on what level of stockpile it should maintain for the future and that it has estimated that holding a stockpile sufficient to deal with a pandemic equivalent to Covid would represent “value for money only if there was a pandemic every 12 years”.

Chair of the committee Meg Hillier MP described the purchasing of PPE during the pandemic as “perhaps the most shameful episode” in the UK government’s response to the virus, with health and social care workers “left to risk their own and their families’ lives” due to a lack of basic equipment.

“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. This has left us with massive public contracts now under investigation by the National Crime Agency or in dispute because of allegations of modern slavery in the supply chain,” she said.

“DHSC singularly failed to manage this crisis, despite years of clear and known risk of a pandemic, and the challenges facing it now are vast, from getting the NHS back on its feet to preparing for the next major crisis. There are frankly too few signs that it is putting its house in order or knows how to.”

The report found that the department “regularly failed to follow public spending rules”, and argued the pandemic “highlighted the importance of achieving transparency in respect of how it identifies and manages declarations of interests”.

It concluded that a “considerable amount” of money was spent on products from new suppliers including those “with no previous experience of supplying certain types of products”, which had the effect of “increasing the risk that the Department entered into contracts where conflicts of interest existed”.

The High Court ruled earlier this year that the “high priority lane” established outside of the normal procurement process to help ‘VIPs’ win lucrative government contracts for PPE at the height of the pandemic were unlawful.

A National Audit Office report in 2020 found that half of all Covid contracts, worth around £10.5bn, had been awarded without a competitive process and that applicants with political contacts were ten times more likely to be successful.

Labour repeatedly criticised PPE outsourcing in the pandemic. The party accused government ministers of “damaging public confidence” after it emerged that contracts worth £81m were awarded to a firm owned by a major Tory donor.

Read the full report from the cross-party public accounts committee here.

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