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Personal Protective Equipment Procurement

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021

Today, the Government are publishing further information about their exceptional procurement exercise to secure critical personal protective equipment (PPE) during the early months of the covid-19 pandemic.

We have already published details of all Government PPE contracts in line with our transparency obligations. Today’s publication goes above and beyond those obligations as a measure of our commitment to openness about procurement processes during the pandemic.

Market overview in March 2020

The outbreak of covid-19 in 2020 saw the total disruption of global PPE markets. Demand for PPE skyrocketed, leading to huge price inflation and limited supplies. Normal market dynamics ceased to exist, and with them our NHS procurement procedures. It was essential that Government adapted its approach to sourcing PPE for health and social care frontline workers, moving extremely quickly where necessary and taking carefully considered risks with new suppliers where appropriate, in order to secure vital supplies in the teeth of stiff competition all around the world.

To save lives, we focused our efforts, resources and attention on sourcing PPE. We continue to stand by the efforts we made at the height of the early pandemic to prioritise and protect our staff in the frontline.

Adapting to market volatility

Within the first few months of 2020, covid-19’s dramatic impact on public bodies, and their ability to secure necessary levels of PPE, was becoming clear. Global demand was outstripping supply, while at the same time brand-new manufacturers and suppliers were rushing to fill the gaps in the volatile PPE market.

The Government took decisive action. In order to secure the PPE needed by the NHS, in the quantities and to the timescales required, we adopted an entirely new “open-source” approach to procurement.

Agile and decisive decision making

This was an entirely new approach to Government procurement—we were inviting industry to come to us: opening up fresh sources of supply that we could rapidly vet as being technically, legally and commercially compliant in order to secure product in the rapidly moving global market for PPE. Absolutely central to this new approach was our willingness to work with brand-new suppliers, because this was a brand-new marketplace for PPE.

The response from industry was phenomenal. Over 15,000 businesses came forward with over 24,000 offers within a 14-week period and we are hugely grateful for this support.

Managing and processing offers

To secure product quickly and effectively, we focused efforts on prioritising and processing offers. At the peak, over 400 staff were assigned to work on processing the offers of PPE, which were divided into a number of discrete workstreams.

A “UK Make” workstream, for example, handling offers from UK-related sources, sought to establish a resilient domestic manufacturing base for PPE that would provide security of supply for the future. Other offers were specifically processed through a “China Buy” workstream whose caseworkers could harness the expertise of our embassy in Beijing to identify and secure priority opportunities within China, the market leader in supplying PPE.

A small proportion of offers—approximately 430 of the 24,000—were processed through a “high priority referral” route.

These were all ways of managing the incredible volume of offers, and the breadth of sources, to ensure we could find the product when we needed it most. As of June 2020, when the peak had passed, all these procurement routes were closed down.

The high priority lane

There has been significant interest in the high priority lane. We take our responsibilities around due diligence extremely seriously and, as the National Audit Office has found, Ministers were not involved in procurement decisions.

The high priority mailbox was set up at a time when, with the country and citizens in need of urgent help, many suppliers and individuals were rightly passing on offers of support direct to their local MPs, healthcare professionals and civil servants, because they were keen that the Government procurement effort knew what was available. The mailbox allowed MPs, ministers and senior officials to direct those offers to a dedicated location.

All offers that came to the mailbox were triaged by an official from the high priority appraisals team to be processed and responded to.

The criteria used to assess offers were the same as those used to assess any other offer from across the PPE procurement programme. The suppliers had to undergo the same checks and clearances as all others awarded a contract. End-to-end, the process of assessing an offer and awarding a contract was led by officials on the basis of published specifications and commercial expertise. Being referred to the high priority lane was emphatically not a guarantee of a contract; indeed, nearly 90% of offers referred through this route were unsuccessful. Those to whom contracts were awarded helped enormously, securing more than 5 billion items of life-saving PPE for the frontline.

The suppliers, and indeed those who referred them, were not notified that their offer was processed through the mailbox. This was not a separate channel for suppliers to provide offers to Government; rather, it was an internal process set up for handling such offers.

As the information set out shows, the range of suppliers successfully processed through the high priority route was wide. They came from within Government and outside, via politicians and civil servants, from healthcare professionals and commercial experts. The list also reflects the number of different types of “referral”, ranging from offers that were simply forwarded by staff working in ministerial private offices and personal referrals from MPs, to suppliers passed on by healthcare professionals and offers referred by the NHS’s existing supply chain, Supply Chain Coordination Ltd. Due to incomplete record keeping, in a small number of cases, we have not been able to identify the individual or team who directed the offer to this route.

We publish this account today as an insight into how the Government mobilised the resources of our parliamentarians, our businesses, the civil service and the whole country to meet the challenges of a national emergency. We are proud of the efforts to secure PPE supplies for our frontline workers at a time of incredible need. Above all, we are hugely grateful to all those who responded to the calls to help us protect those who care for the most vulnerable in our society. Our PPE stocks are now resilient. We have a strong UK manufacturing base, and a contingency stockpile should there be further spikes in demand.

A list indicating the range of routes used to identify suppliers can be found at: