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Covid-19: Personal Protective Equipment

Volume 804: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment for (1) hospitals, and (2) care homes, in the event of a second wave of cases of COVID-19.

My Lords, we have made our supply chains more resilient by massively expanding both our supply from overseas and our domestic manufacturing capability. We are now confident in our supply of PPE to meet the needs of health and social care over the next seven-day and 90-day horizons and are looking further ahead. We continue to model future demand from health and care services to cover the approach of winter and bring resilience to the supply chain.

My Lords, the Government are being warned, urgently, on all sides to prepare for a second wave of Covid this winter. I hear what the Minister has said but last week, the Public Accounts Committee found that the Government are still not treating the supply of PPE with similar urgency. Will the Minister now commit to publishing a detailed plan by September, as the committee has asked for, explaining what exactly will be different, so that mistakes are not repeated and health and care workers are better protected?

My Lords, I completely share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about a second peak and we are working to prepare for that. I respect the views of the PAC and emphasise that our approach to PPE is incredibly serious. A huge amount of work has gone into it and a huge amount of progress has been made.

Can my noble friend identify what lessons have been learnt so far from both the quantity and quality of the PPE that has been used in homes and hospitals? What action will be taken to minimise cross-infection for those who have to go into people’s domestic homes and who often work in more than one location?

My Lords, the big lesson from Covid is that the quantity of PPE needed for a disease like this is massively more that could ever have been expected, particularly compared with our past experience. It has hit every country in the world and has hit the global supply chains incredibly hard. A benign lesson is that British manufacturers are capable of stepping up the challenge, and I salute their work. Contamination from itinerant workers was always one of the greatest challenges of the care sector, and we have put in a huge amount of work and financial resources to avoid the need for workers who move from home to home.

My Lords, when I asked the Minister on 24 June to ensure that interpreters in the NHS would not be forgotten when stockpiling PPE in case of a second wave, he very helpfully told the House that he would continue to press the department on this. So, I am mystified that I still have not had a reply to my simple question of 12 May, asking who is responsible for providing PPE for freelance NHS interpreters. Can the Minister enlighten me today?

The noble Baroness is entirely right to champion the role of interpreters. Their role in the recent Leicester lockdown has been incredibly important: there could not have been an incident that better highlights the importance of language skills in the healthcare setting, and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for championing those. The care of interpreters is an incredibly complex question and entirely depends on where they are sited. It is the responsibility of individual trusts to look after interpreters in hospital settings but, in other settings, it may be that of other organisations.

Do the Government now accept that there is no further excuse for secret, non-competitive contracts for PPE channelled through the friends of Ministers and special advisers? There are thousands of UK companies ready and willing to bid for contracts to produce PPE—why not use them? China may not be reliable in the future.

I completely reject the implications of the noble Lord’s question. While British companies have stepped forward and we are pleased to have made many contracts, there are not, I am afraid to say, thousands of domestic producers capable of providing the billions of items we need in the British health service. I pay respect to all the companies that moved quickly and contracted under difficult circumstances for major contracts. I also salute the companies overseas with which we have good relationships, and which remain our trusted partners.

My Lords, alongside PPE we must have a comprehensive test and trace system to prevent a second wave. Today, the Health Service Journal reports that virtually all the top team of test and trace are leaving, and that McKinsey is contracted to review the governance and entire form of test and trace. Why would the Government bring in a multimillion-pound consultancy firm to review a so-called world-beating test and trace system?

My Lords, turnover of the test and trace team is an inevitable consequence of an organisation that was set up using temporary staff, many of whom are on short contracts and need to return to their previous roles. It is regrettable, but I owe them a huge debt of thanks for the work they have done. The work of McKinsey is focused on governance, not on HR. It was commissioned some time ago and it is an entirely proper and regular appointment.

My Lords, I refer back to what the noble Lord said about the amount of PPE that is needed. It is actually the case that in the 2016 report it was signalled that we would need a gigantic quantity. I am sure we would all agree that we need better organised and effective preparation if there is to be a second wave, and the centralised purchasing of PPE, managed by local public health agencies, will ensure effective distribution. I want to ask about the care sector. Does the noble Lord believe it is acceptable or wise for care homes to have to pay over the top prices and compete for PPE? Does this not put the wider public health interests at risk? What steps is the Minister taking to end discrimination against the care sector in the supply of PPE and ensure essential protection for care workers, residents and visitors?

My Lords, it is a reality that the cost of PPE has gone through the roof. There is nothing that I or the Government can do about that. It is something we are going to have to live with and budget for: it is part of the new reality. As to the procurement of PPE, as the noble Baroness knows, within the care sector it was previously the arrangement that local providers would source their own PPE. The Government have stepped in to bring resilience and confidence to that supply chain and to offer alternative sources of supply to local care homes. We have moved emphatically and sought to bring both affordability and resilience to the supply chain.

My Lords, I was going to ask my noble friend about private sector provision of PPE, but I shall move on to something which may be even more significant—the hopeful news of developments in Oxford scientists identifying a vaccine against Covid. Is my noble friend able to offer any update on that news? Can he set out what role the private sector has in the development and, we hope, eventual manufacture of any such vaccine?

My noble friend is entirely right: the news from Oxford appears to be incredibly encouraging. Coronaviruses are typically very difficult to provide vaccines for, but the Oxford team is clearly confident that it is making serious progress. It has a contract with AstraZeneca, which is its private sector partner in the UK and globally. The administration of that vaccine, should it be successful, or of any other successful vaccine, is a matter of huge national importance. Thanks to Kate Bingham and the Vaccine Taskforce, we are putting a huge amount of work in to ensure that the administration of that vaccine into the arms of the country will be done in a speedy and efficient fashion.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, was appointed last April, with much fanfare, to resolve a national PPE crisis. Is he now responsible for ensuring adequate PPE, both clinical and other types—particularly for care homes, to deal with any second wave and the expected higher numbers infected through the winter months—for the whole of the UK, or just for England?

My noble friend Lord Deighton is still in place: I spoke to him recently. His impact has been immense, and I owe him a huge debt of thanks for that. He is particularly focused on the “make” leg of the PPE project, and within that he has recruited firms such as Medicom, Redwood, Photocentric, Ramfoam, Elite and Macdonald & Taylor Healthcare—British manufacturers that are, between them, providing hundreds of millions of items of PPE.

Sitting suspended.