By Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's failure to stockpile key pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) before the coronavirus pandemic left supplies dangerously low and forced the government to pay five times the normal price to meet demand, the public spending watchdog said.
About a third of doctors and nurses, including those working in the riskiest areas of hospitals with COVID-19 patients, complained they were given inadequate protective equipment as the pandemic swept across Britain earlier this year.
There were insufficient supplies of gowns and visors despite warnings from some of the government's top scientific advisers last year that they should be increased, the National Audit Office (NAO) said in a report.
The government stockpiles, which only had about two weeks' worth of most equipment, were too low because the focus had been on preparing for a flu pandemic - not for a more infectious and deadlier coronavirus, the NAO said.
In desperation, the government spent 12.5 billion pounds ($16.6 billion) between February and July on protective equipment, 10 billion pounds more than the same items would have cost last year, the NAO said. The inflated prices included a 166% increase for respirator masks to 1,310% for body bags.
But under a tenth of the 32 billion items of equipment purchased during this period arrived for the first wave of the pandemic, the watchdog said.
"The national stockpile was nowhere near big enough for a coronavirus outbreak – a consequence of the pandemic plans’ fixation on influenza," said Meg Hillier, an opposition lawmaker who chairs parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.
"The government was far too slow to recognise how precarious the position was," she added. "When the penny finally dropped DHSC [the Department for Health and Social Care] had to scramble to buy what was left as prices went through the roof."
Jo Churchill, a junior health minister, said the report confirmed that even during the unprecedented pandemic, hospitals never ran out of protective equipment.
"We are confident we can provide a continuous supply to our amazing frontline workers over the coming months," she said.
(Editing by Stephen Addison)