Government to burn piles of wasted PPE bought during COVID

Health secretary, Sajid Javid visits St George's Hospital in south west London where he talked to staff and met Covid 19 patients who are being treated with a new anti-viral drug. The coronavirus booster programme continues across the UK with the government's aim to offer everyone a booster jab by the end of the year. Picture date: Wednesday December 22, 2021. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
MPs were told on Wednesday that an unspecified amount of PPE may be burned due to being unusable. (Getty).

An unspecified proportion of the billions of pieces of unused personal, protective equipment (PPE) bought during the COVID pandemic is set to be burned by the government, MPs have been told.

On Wednesday, officials at the department for health and social care said some 3.9 billion pieces of wasted PPE will be either recycled, sent abroad, or burned.

It currently costs the government around £1.7m per week to store the unusable PPE.

Officials insisted they hoped some of the PPE could be burned "to provide power and energy", although they could not guarantee that would always be the case.

"Currently, we do not have a clearer view of the total amount that can be recycled, the volumes that may go to heat from waste," said Jonathan Marron, director general at the office for health improvement and disparities at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

EMBARGOED TO 0001 WEDNESDAY MARCH 30 File photo dated 21/12/2021 of a nurse puts on PPE in a ward for Covid patients at King's College Hospital, in south east London. The Government has been told to
Officials from the department of health and social care stressed that the department hope to convert excess PPE that could not be recycled or sold abroad to energy by burning it. (PA)

Sir Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at DHSC, confirmed the plans, saying: "We're not planning for any not-for-energy incineration at the moment."

Officials said their preferred method would be recycling or sales abroad.

Marron also said they were working with the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on the issue of how best to dispose of the billions of the pieces of unusable PPE.

"We’re working with BEIS and Innovate UK to look at whether... there are other ways of recycling some of these products and more innovative things we can do... there may be other ways of doing this and we’re looking at," said Marron.

'Get a grip'

The National Audit Office (NAO) — the government's spending watchdog — has been highly critical of the government's procurement of PPE.

In March, the NAO told the government to “get a grip” of PPE stocks and contracts, as it disclosed more than half of suppliers who provided items through the VIP fast-track lane provided stock that was not suitable for use on the front line.

The NAO said that, as of March 2022, the DHSC had already spent £12.6bn on procuring 38 billion items of PPE. The final amount is expected to reach £13.1bn.

It said the DHSC had received 31.5 billion items of PPE, with a further 1.4 billion items stored in China and 5 billion still to be received.

Read more: Get a grip over PPE ministers told, nearly two years on from start of pandemic

The NAO added that the government was now being charged millions of pounds to store this equipment for longer than expected, there were “inconsistencies” between the volume of PPE ordered and what was received, and that billions of items were not suitable for use on the front line.

“The department of health and social care is still dealing with the results of its emergency procurement decisions, some two years after it first needed to rapidly buy PPE in unprecedented circumstances," Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said in March.

Nurses changing their PPE on Ward 5, a Covid Red Ward, at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley. Picture date: Wednesday January 27, 2021.
It is estimated some 3.9 billion pieces of PPE are unusable, stored at a cost of £1.7m per week. (PA)

“The department is continuing to manage 176 contracts where it believes it may not achieve full value for money, with an estimated £2.7bn at risk.”

Earlier this month, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves accused the government of "burning" taxpayer money.

"[Look at the] £8.7bn the National Audit Office say [the government] overspent on PPE - some of which is now being burned," Reeves told Yahoo News UK.

"The taxpayer's money is literally going up in smoke because of the mismanagement of Tory ministers."

Read more: Government fraud investigators probe PPE contracts, MPs told

In March, a DHSC spokesperson said on PPE issues: “Our priority throughout the pandemic has been saving lives, and we have delivered over 19.1 billion items of PPE to frontline staff to keep them safe.

“Having too much PPE was preferable to having too little in the face of an unpredictable and dangerous virus, given this was essential to keep our NHS open and protect as many people as possible.

“Where contracts are in dispute, we are seeking to recover costs from suppliers and we expect to recover significant amounts of taxpayers’ money.

Watch: Sajid Javid vows to start reducing NHS waiting list from 2024