The British government is under fire for writing off about £10 billion ($13.54bn) of taxpayers’ cash on personal protective equipment that was unfit for use, overpriced or misplaced.
Records show hundreds of millions of pounds alone were wasted on items that failed to meet medical and safety standards and had to be disposed of during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Auditors rebuked the health department for its financial management system during the public health crisis. The department said the vast majority – 97 per cent – of items ordered were fit for use.
Some of the equipment flown to the UK was found to have passed its expiry date as countries around the world scrambled for masks, gowns, face shields and other equipment.
The National Audit Office said officials have not ascertained the location of a further £3.6bn in supplies, and offered only qualified approval of the department’s accounts.
Downing Street said “we stand by the decision to purchase the items that we did”.
“We were acting in a highly competitive global market with many countries imposing export bans and obviously we were seeking to secure PPE for frontline clinicians,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
“With regards to the specific money relating to these PPE items, we know that global prices have understandably shifted substantially throughout the pandemic, with the market now returning to business as usual, and so [the] value of goods [is] becoming lower. So, for example, we now estimate the value of aprons that we purchased is a third of what we paid during the height of the pandemic.
“We believe that our approach was justified because it was necessary to get those aprons and other important pieces of PPE to the front line, 97 per cent of PPE ordered was suitable for use and we’re seeking to recover costs from suppliers wherever and whenever possible.”
He said since the pandemic took hold in early 2020 the UK has moved to increase its level of production of PPE, reducing its reliance on overseas companies.
This, he said, would mean Britain is better equipped to “mitigate any further such similar challenges in the future”.
Pat McFadden, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, was highly critical of the health department’s accounting records and accused Boris Johnson’s government of having a “laissez-faire attitude to fraud”.
“These levels of waste destroy any claim the Conservatives have to be careful stewards of the public finances,” he said.
“Along with the government’s laissez-faire attitude to fraud, this will be particularly galling to hard-working households wondering how they will pay the higher taxes the chancellor is imposing this April.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said saving lives has been its “absolute priority” throughout the pandemic.
“In a highly competitive global market where many countries imposed export bans, we acted swiftly to obtain 30,000 ventilators by the end of June 2020 and we have delivered over 17.5 billion items of PPE to the front line, with 97 per cent of PPE we ordered being suitable for use,” they said.
“The supply of these vital items helped keep our NHS open at a moment of national crisis to deliver a world-class service to the public.”