Care home workers were left without personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the pandemic, MPs have said.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee said care homes received only a fraction of the PPE needed compared with the health service.
The committee said its investigation shows “staff having to care for people with Covid-19 or suspected Covid-19 without sufficient PPE to protect themselves from infection.”
It said social care “was only taken seriously after the high mortality rate in care homes became apparent”.
Unison union general secretary Christina McAnea said “care workers were forced to make their own safety kit, buy it themselves or go without”. This meant “putting themselves, their families and the people they looked after at huge risk”.
“The distress and fear this caused cannot be overstated,” she said.
The committee’s report could be interpreted as the government having the wrong balance between PPE deliveries to the NHS and social care. But the real problem was the overall lack of equipment and failings in its distribution.
The stockpiling of PPE was completely inadequate. The government should have known this. An exercise code-named Exercise Cygnus took place in October 2016 to simulate the effects of a pandemic.
It involved all major government departments, the NHS and local authorities across Britain. It showed that the NHS would be understaffed and overwhelmed and it specifically highlighted the potential dire shortages of PPE.
Between March and July 2020 the department of health provided NHS trusts with 1.9 billion items of PPE, the equivalent to 80 percent of estimated need. The adult social care sector was given 331 million items—just 10 percent of its need. Neither the NHS nor care had enough.
This was worsened by the privatisation of the NHS distribution arm by Labour in the 2000s. It was broken up and the NHS Logistics section handed over to DHL. Unipart then won the contract after undercutting DHL in a bidding war in 2018.
At the start of the pandemic the company was deciding for itself what level of PPE demand was acceptable. It was warning trusts, “Orders placed for excessive quantities may be subject to automatic system reduction”.
The committee also highlighted that at the same time as PPE was lacking, about 25,000 patients were discharged to care homes from hospitals. They were not tested for Covid-19.
“This contributed significantly to the deaths in care homes during the first wave,” the committee said.
The day after the report was published this week, it was revealed that the government is not sure where billions of pounds worth of PPE is located now.
Gareth Davies, the head of the National Audit Office, on Thursday said that outside consultants had been brought into Whitehall to find the equipment. It is stored at different sites around Britain or is in transit from other countries.
Under questioning from the public accounts committee, Davies said, “We have been working closely with the DoH. It has commissioned consultants to advise it on first of all understanding where all the PPE that has been bought actually is.
“It sounds like a strange question, but it is a really big issue because it is not all standing neatly in an NHS store somewhere.”