UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

London — The UK lost a “crucial month” in its fight against coronavirus because it was too slow to respond to a shortage of ventilators, while the delay in sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE) came at a cost of £10bn to the taxpayer, according to two spending reports.

Ministers only started efforts to buy more ventilators on March 3, just over a month after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the pandemic a public health emergency, the House of Commons spending watchdog said on Wednesday. The National Audit Office (NAO), which scrutinises public spending, said the UK’s tardiness in sourcing PPE forced ministers to pay “very high prices” for new kit — much of which came too late for the first wave of infections.

The two reports are likely to pile more pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government over its handling of the pandemic. The UK’s death toll of more than 55,000 is among the highest in the world, while the economic damage is also severe. Forecasts due to be published on Wednesday are expected to show GDP shrinking about 11% in 2020 — the most in more than 300 years.

Government stockpiles of PPE were intended for an influenza pandemic and were not adequate for the Covid-19 outbreak, the NAO said in its report. Between February and July, the government spent £12.5bn on 32-billion items of PPE, of which only 2.6-billion were delivered to front-line organisations, according to the NAO.

Meanwhile the PAC said it recognised the “significant achievement” of securing an extra 26,000 ventilators between March and early August. But committee chair Meg Hillier said this came about “much more by luck than design,” and the government “incredibly had no plan for sourcing critical-care equipment in an international emergency”.

The government said the number of ventilators procured means it was now better prepared for future emergencies.

“The NHS now has access to over 30,000 mechanical and 15,000 noninvasive ventilators,” the department of health said in a statement. “This is more than three times as many as it had at the start of the pandemic so we are well prepared to meet any future need.”

On concerns raised over PPE, health minister Jo Churchill said the government had set up “robust and resilient supply chains from scratch” and would provide a “continuous supply to our amazing front-line workers” over the coming months.


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