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Covid-19: Personal Protective Equipment

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 23 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many United Kingdom manufacturers are in place to ensure that an adequate supply of personal protective equipment is made available to (1) the National Health Service, and (2) carers, to all regions of the United Kingdom; and what direct contact they have had with such manufacturers based in the North of England.

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

Every NHS and care worker must get the personal protection equipment that they need. We have a PPE plan with three strands: guidance, distribution and future supply. Through buying more PPE from abroad and making more at home, we will have enough PPE to meet our needs. Historically, there has been limited UK manufacture of PPE, but we now have a Make strategy under my noble friend Lord Deighton to encourage manufacturers throughout the UK to produce PPE, including in the textile heartlands of the north.

My Lords, will my noble friend congratulate the company Industrial Textiles & Plastics, which makes the much-needed impermeable material for gowns, and Barbour and Burberry, which are manufacturing these gowns—all, in this case, free of charge and distributed through a Thirsk-based volunteer organisation organised by local NHS trusts? Will the Government agree to use this model for the manufacture and distribution of gowns through local manufacturers and local distributors to disperse to NHS trusts?

My Lords, I share the noble Baroness’s endorsement of the tremendous response from British manufacturing. Some 176 firms have applied to the scheme and we are processing their suggestions. My noble friend Lord Deighton is a powerful advocate for the Make programme. I thank in particular Don & Low, Ineos and Survitec, which have already made a considerable contribution to production.

My Lords, NHS Providers warned last night of a very real risk that front-line staff’s confidence and trust in national leaders could be significantly undermined unless trust leaders and staff are confident that they are receiving adequate supplies of the right equipment at the right time. On Saturday, Robert Jenrick promised that a very large consignment of PPE would arrive from Turkey on Sunday. In fact, it was not until yesterday that half of the promised 84 tonnes arrived. Trying to grab headlines with a dubious promise is hardly likely to help staff confidence. Is it true that Turkey was asked to facilitate this shipment only the day after the Minister’s promise? Could the Minister tell us what is the daily requirement for PPE in the NHS and how it compares with the Turkish shipment?

My Lords, it is not correct that Turkey was asked to intervene only at the last minute. We have been in constant, daily and regular contact with the Turkish Government. We are grateful to the Turkish Government for their help and involvement and we continue to work with Turkish companies on this order. On the NHS’s requirement, this virus undoubtedly requires much more protection than any other disease that we have encountered. The demand for PPE will continue to rise. We will meet that need through our Make programme and continued strong relationships with foreign providers.

My Lords, Methodist Homes has reported the deaths of 250 residents and two staff from Covid-19 since the beginning of the outbreak. Last week, it was forced to buy 200,000 face masks for £200,000—five times the going rate. The current government allocation is 300 masks per home per week, when the reality is that they need over 1,000. The system for providing support for our care homes, which are really struggling—they are actually now the focus of the outbreak—is just going from bad to worse. Can the Minister please tell us exactly when homes will receive the PPE that they need?

The noble Baroness is entirely right to commend the sacrifice of hard-working care workers who put their safety on the line and put themselves in harm’s way. She is also correct to allude to the challenge for care homes—15,000 of them—that have previously largely looked after their own procurement arrangements. This Covid disease presents an enormous procurement challenge. The Government have stepped up and are helping care homes in many ways. Nearly a billion items of PPE have been distributed in the last six weeks and we will continue our commitment to support care homes.

My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend on the excellent job he is doing in the department and on his diligence in answering our questions. I ask him this: if handwashing destroys coronavirus on our hands, why on earth do we not launder these 450,000 so-called disposable garments that we throw away each day? Is that not an appalling waste of resources, as well as bad for our environment? Will we radically step up making our own washable PPE, now and for the foreseeable future?

The noble Lord makes an entirely reasonable and common-sense request. It is one that I have put to officials myself. The practicalities of PPE are that you have to be prepared to be covered in large amounts of human fluids and for the garments to be waterproof against their impact. Staff are uncomfortable with wearing garments that may have been used in that way previously. In order to maintain levels of hygiene and to rid them of disease, it is very difficult to reuse them. However, we have a committee looking at the potential for reuse, which will be reporting shortly.

How does the NHS expect to be able to buy PPE when it insists on paying 30 days after delivery, when everyone else is paying upfront, especially internationally? This applies both when we want to import and to pre-empt export. It might explain the interruption in the Turkish supply chain.

My Lords, the question of payment is a relevant one. We have put in place new facilities for different means of payment, but I just alert noble Lords to the very large amount of fraud that exists in this marketplace at the moment. I am aware of several police inquiries into situations where providers have sought early or upfront payment. We have to protect both the patients from failure to deliver and the taxpayer regarding value for money

My Lords, in view of the inability to supply sufficient PPE to where it is needed, despite the very best efforts of central government, will the Minister take note of the achievements of the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, working in partnership with Wingrove Motor Company, Northumbria University, Barbour and many others, to produce and deliver PPE directly to hospitals and hospices in the region? Will the Minister consider devolving more power to the regions and those on the front line?

The reference that the right reverend Prelate makes is an entirely right one. I pay tribute to the hard-working professionals in NHS and care home procurement. They have been caught in the eye of the most tremendous storm and, under extremely difficult circumstances, are working hard to meet the challenge. In particular, I pay tribute to the local procurement teams who are using their initiative to answer the challenge. Our approach to PPE procurement is one of collaboration with these sorts of local initiatives. I commend them, and they very much spell the future of PPE procurement.

I was going to ask about waiving regulatory requirements, but I will instead return to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Harris: is it the case that the Minister does not know the number of PPE required? My noble friend asked that question specifically. How much PPE is required on a daily or weekly basis? If the Minister does not know the answer, that is fine; he probably needs to find out and tell us.

The noble Baroness asks a perfectly reasonable question. I am afraid that I do not know the individual amount off the top of my head. I can tell her that, to date, we have delivered 135 million masks, 148 million aprons, 1.3 million gowns and 485 million gloves—more than 900 million items in total. The amount that we are providing increases every day. I will not hide from the noble Baroness or the House that this is a fast-moving situation. It is my impression that the demand for PPE will soon extend to other workplace situations and increase. It would be wrong to give the impression that this is a fixed amount that we should try to hit with short-term targets.

Following on from my noble friend Lord Blencathra, it is vital that we explore all options to increase the sustainability of UK stocks. I understand that UVC is often used for surface sterilisation; early research suggests that it can also be used for gowns and masks, using UV sources, which are found in lots of biosafety cabinets in academic, commercial and hospital labs. If the reuse committee mentioned by the Minister has not started looking at this, can he please ask them to consider whether this is a viable option to extend the lifespan of PPE?

The noble Baroness is right to champion this point. The Cleveland Clinic is known to us. I will ensure that it is played into the task force that is working on both the regulations and practicalities of reuse.

My Lords, that concludes the Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. Thank you very much, questioners and Ministers. The Virtual Proceedings will resume at 12.15 pm for the Private Notice Question in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.