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'Shameful and toxic': MPs demand answers over billions of PPE going up in smoke

Health officials say they will burn much of a £4bn pile of unusable equipment to generate power - but a select committee investigating the episode wants to know more about the financial and environmental costs.

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MPs are demanding answers over the financial and environmental cost of plans to burn some of the billions of pounds of PPE bought during the pandemic that will not be used by the NHS.

Figures earlier this year showed that nearly £9bn of the government's spending on personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns was written off, including products costing £4bn that did not meet health service standards.

An inquiry by the Commons public accounts committee heard that the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) plans to burn "significant volumes" of it to generate power.

In a report into the episode, the MPs said there were "concerns about the cost-effectiveness and environmental impact of this 'strategy'".

They have asked for the department to provide further details of the volumes of PPE being disposed of and the costs involved in storing and getting rid of it, as well as environmental impacts.

The MPs found that the government had approached 75 countries to try to offload the unusable equipment, with discussions ongoing with 11 of them.

In some cases, it is re-purposing the gear - turning face visors into food trays and aprons into bin bags.

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Two waste companies are to be appointed to dispose of 15,000 pallets a month of the kit via a combination of recycling and burning, the committee was told.

In the meantime the government is still spending £3.5m a week storing PPE, the MPs said.

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The report took aim at the DHSC's "haphazard purchasing strategy", noting that 24% of PPE contracts that were awarded were now in dispute.

Those included deals for products that were not fit for purpose and one arrangement to buy 3.5 billion gloves produced by a manufacturer facing modern slavery allegations.

Earlier this year, it emerged that police had raided homes and offices in London and the Isle of Man as part of a National Crime Agency investigation into the supply of PPE at the start of the pandemic.

Dame Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the public accounts committee, said :"The story of PPE purchasing is perhaps the most shameful episode in 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."

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said: "This absolutely damning report exposes the shameful and toxic waste of Boris Johnson's Conservatives.

"Ministers have been carelessly burning taxpayers' money by the billion as unusable gowns, goggles, and gloves literally go up in flames."

Pat Cullen, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "Our members will find this galling. It is a painful reminder of the worst of the pandemic - inadequate or wasteful PPE.

"Sending billions of pounds up in smoke when NHS and care services are struggling will be hard for them to comprehend.

"If this money had been used more wisely and decent quality PPE bought in the first place, then nurses' lives might have been saved.

"It will be critical, if we are to truly learn the lessons, for the forthcoming public inquiry to pin down causes and to say clearly where mistakes were made so they are never repeated."

A DHSC spokesperson said in response to the select committee report: "A number of these claims are misleading, including the claims that we are burning £4bn of unusable PPE and that there is no clear disposal strategy for excess PPE.

"In the face of an unpredictable and dangerous virus, 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."