Reports of personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages have been a running theme since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past week both the UK and Scottish governments have made claims about the extent of those shortages.
Ferret Fact Service looked at the claims by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and UK health secretary Matt Hancock.
On 17 February First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told parliament that, having “learned lessons” from the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the Scottish Government “had a stockpile of PPE at the start of this pandemic”.
“That is why we never ran out of PPE and why we quickly resolved the early issues that we faced with regard to the distribution of PPE within the health service,” she added.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said there was “a substantial stockpile” of PPE at the beginning of the pandemic. She said the provision had been modelled on what was required for an influenza outbreak, supplemented by supplies for day-to-day NHS usage. She did not give details on how many individual pieces of PPE were in stock.
An Audit Scotland report published this month found that as a result of the “unprecedented demand” for PPE at the beginning of the pandemic the Scottish Government’s stockpile “was not enough to fully meet the demands of the NHS”. Some NHS boards, it said, “reported shortages of certain items of PPE early in the pandemic”.
That was reflected in a May 2020 paper from the board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, which said that from the start of the pandemic there had been “national short supplies of different elements of PPE at various times, lack of clarity on supplies and erratic deliveries”.
Whistleblowers have come forward during the pandemic to reveal PPE shortages in Scotland’s NHS.
While a Royal College of Nursing poll in April 2020 found 47 per cent of Scottish respondents working in high risk environments and 36 per cent in general care environments had been asked to re-use single-use protective equipment.
At the beginning of the pandemic all PPE used in Scotland was imported from abroad. In its October 2020 PPE Action Plan the Scottish Government said there had been “effectively zero Scottish PPE manufacturing before the pandemic”.
In March 2020, the World Health Organization warned of global shortages of PPE caused by “rising demand, panic buying, hoarding and misuse”. It urged industry and governments to increase manufacturing to meet the rising demand.
In May, the Scottish Government announced the creation of a Scottish supply chain for the manufacture of gowns. Trade minister Ivan McKee said manufacturing PPE in Scotland would help “to protect us from any global supply issues and ensure frontline staff continue to have the protection they need”.
The government spokeswoman said Scottish businesses have since been supported to begin manufacturing masks and hand sanitisers. Last week, the First Minister told parliament that “over the winter period, nearly half of all PPE that has been used in Scotland has been supplied from Scotland”.
According to the Audit Scotland report, “initial difficulties in supplying and distributing sufficient PPE across the NHS in Scotland have since been resolved and supply is now meeting demand”.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Half True
While it appears Scotland never completely ran out of PPE, there were reported shortages in Scottish health boards, and NHS staff reported being asked to reuse equipment.
In an interview with the BBC’s Today programme on 23 February, UK health secretary Matt Hancock claimed that no shortages were experienced at the UK level.
In a discussion focused on his department not publishing PPE supply contracts as required by law, Hancock said it is “hard to deliver PPE in the teeth of a pandemic” but that “that’s what my team did”.
“Yes, there were individual challenges in access to PPE, but we never had a national shortage, because of my team.”
A report published by the National Audit Office in June 2020 found that at the start of the pandemic the central stockpile of PPE held by Public Health England “lacked items such as gowns and visors”.
It also found that, up to mid-May, “the amount of PPE distributed from central stocks only matched health providers’ requirements for face masks and clinical waste bags”.
The modelled numbers, which were calculated on a worst-case scenario basis, found that provision fell short on gowns, eye-protectors and aprons.
The Department for Health and Social Care said Hancock’s claim on the Today programme was “based on” a separate National Audit Office report from November 2020 that looked specifically at the supply of PPE during the pandemic.
He noted that the report states: “The NHS provider organisations we spoke to told us that, while they were concerned about the low stocks of PPE, they were always able to get what they needed in time.”
However, that report added that this “was not the experience reported by many front-line workers”. It said “significant numbers” of those workers “considered that they were not adequately protected during the height of the first wave of the pandemic”.
Oxford-based palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke, who has written a book detailing healthcare workers’ first-hand accounts of the pandemic, said that matched her own experience. She wrote on Twitter that Hancock’s claim was “categorically not true”.
“I say this as someone who *begged* local veterinary practices & schools for masks & visors,” she wrote. “Whose hospice nearly closed down through lack of PPE. This was happening up & down the country. It was horrendous.”
The November National Audit Office report also noted that the Government had “faced distribution problems and a lack of information on local requirements” for PPE.
After announcing a distribution plan on 10 April last year, Hancock said in a BBC interview a day later that the “central challenge” in getting PPE “to everyone who needs it” was “one of distribution rather than one of supply”.
Ferret Fact Service Verdict: Mostly False
Matt Hancock’s claim that there was never a national shortage of PPE in England is misleading. The National Audit Office report states that frontline workers felt they were “not adequately protected” during the first wave of the pandemic.
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