Skip to main content

Covid-19: Personal Protective Equipment

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 23 April 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements are in place for cross departmental working across Government for the distribution, supply and manufacture of PPE.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the full weight of the Government is working to get every NHS and care worker the personal protective equipment that they need. A cross-governmental team is working to source PPE from around the globe, drawing on Foreign Office and Commonwealth teams and a global network stood up by the Department for International Trade. The Armed Forces are helping with logistics. My noble friend Lord Deighton leads the efforts to boost UK PPE production.

I am grateful to the Minister. I was rather surprised to see him answering this Question, because I am asking about cross-governmental work and I expected a Cabinet Office Minister. Can I push him on the issue of procurement policy? He will have heard industry complaints, including from overseas manufacturers, that they have been unable to provide PPE to the UK because of the bureaucracy and hurdles involved in the procurement process, so instead they are selling their equipment to other countries. There are also numerous reports of small and medium-sized manufacturers, with the ability and capacity to produce PPE here in the UK, feeling that they have been ignored by the Government and that their approaches are just dropping into a black hole.

Noble Lords are aware that this is urgent; it has been urgent for weeks. It will continue to be urgent and the Government need to be fleet of foot and flexible. We all welcome the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, but is there one Minister with responsibility for PPE, with the authority to work across government departments to unblock any hurdles there could be or any problems in provision and distribution? If there is, who is it and, if not, why not?

The noble Baroness makes a completely fair point. The background is that procurement in the NHS has been lean and efficient. It has been dedicated to choices for local organisations. Therefore a challenge such as Covid, which requires a massive four-nation international procurement programme, requires a different approach. We have stood up that approach and the NHS Supply Chain is working with officials from all the departments. I attended Skipton House to witness for myself the amazing work done by that joint procurement team. Jo Churchill, the Minister responsible, is achieving an enormous amount in this area.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of a comment I read recently in an article on BBC News online, which stated that the UK was incapable of manufacturing PPE products? Does he agree that British manufacturers and a number of others—such as schools, part-time workers, people on furlough and many others—are most capable of producing PPE products to a high standard? Is he further aware of a recent survey conducted by the Manufacturer magazine, which produced an extremely comprehensive and lengthy list of names, from corporate giants such as INEOS, BAE Systems, Dyson and JCB down to small, specialist, family-owned manufacturers, and from many different corners of the UK manufacturing family?

I completely agree. I utterly reject the suggestion that British manufacturers are incapable in this area. I share with my noble friend, though, that this is a low-margin, high-volume game, and those low-margin, high-volume manufacturers are largely found in countries such as China, Turkey and Myanmar. That does not mean that we cannot do local manufacture. We have had 25,000 offers of support from businesses as of yesterday. We are processing those responses, and 175 are through to an advanced round. We have already had three companies deliver PPE goods to the NHS to help our hard-working NHS and care workers.

Has the Department of Health and Social Care raised with the Treasury the issue of care homes having to pay VAT on PPE, which the NHS does not?

The noble Baroness raises a good point. I do not know the precise answer and would be glad to write to her with a clear answer.

My Lords, I have been puzzled—not for the first time—on the PPE distribution question. The UK has always had a system and structure of deciding on priorities of threats to the security and well-being of the United Kingdom. Pandemics have been on that list and given very high priority for a number of years. If that system is functioning, as it normally does very well, how can we have this problem of production, procurement and distribution of PPE? Is it working as it used to? If not, is that because there has been a lack of resources into it in recent years?

The noble Baroness is right to question the resilience arrangements in this country. I reassure her that we have extremely well thought-through resilience arrangements. This disease, though, is more infectious than we could possibly have imagined. The need for PPE is higher than we had originally planned for. In the NHS we have an organisation in which efficiency and supply management has been put at a very high level. However, we have moved incredibly quickly to put in place central supply organisations. The entire weight of government is working hard to ensure that PPE is distributed widely and fairly throughout the system.

In the last couple of days, there have been news reports that a PPE package of some 400,000 pieces ordered from a Turkish company was delayed by the Turkish Government. It has been put to me that the Turkish Government are not responsible for any delay in this shipment, which was a straightforward business deal between the NHS and a Turkish supplier. Will HMG confirm that the Turkish Government have played a constructive role and have not sought to delay the shipment? Will they publicly thank the Turkish Government for not seeking to stop or delay it, even though they have their own crisis to deal with?

I reassure my noble friend that we have been in daily and constant contact with the Turkish Government, who have behaved with good faith and in a supportive fashion throughout all our dealings. We are thankful to them for their involvement.

Does the Minister agree that we have not done well when it comes to the delivery and availability of PPE? As yet, nobody has said sorry to anybody for that. Does he think that somebody should? If I may repeat and slightly rephrase the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, at the door of which Cabinet Minister does the buck stop?

I am not sure that I agree with the analysis of the noble Lord. No one could have anticipated the huge demand for PPE not just in the NHS and care homes but in other workplaces. This is a global phenomenon. The chase for PPE is difficult in all countries around the world. Britain is not alone in struggling with this. I do not think now is the time for apologies; now is the time for delivering PPE, and that is what this Government are focused on doing.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Health Care Supply Association and thank the Minister for his tribute to procurement professionals in the NHS and the supply chain, SCCL. I return to the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, about cross-government working. It is clear that this is a concern of not just the department of health. It certainly involves the Cabinet Office as well. Is there someone in the Government who has the authority to make the final decisions? It is not clear at the moment.

The noble Lord asked for clarity; let me be clear. The NHS is the client. The department of health pays the bills. Other departments are doing their bit to help. We are very grateful to the Cabinet Office in particular for providing contract and procurement staff, and we are thankful to all other departments that have lent us their staff or their logistical skills in delivering our PPE commitments.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until 1 pm for the debate in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.