A Tory minister has refused to apologise for a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the NHS and in care homes during the coronavirus crisis.
Lord Bethell told a secret session of Lords on Thursday that no minister could have predicted the demands placed on PPE in care homes and in the NHS during the coronavirus epidemic.
When asked if the government’s response warranted an apology, the health minister said: ‘I don’t think now is the time for apologies. Now is the time for delivering PPE and that is what this government is focused on doing,’
He continued: ‘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.’
Senior ministers have come under constant fire for not providing frontline NHS staff and care workers with enough PPE to treat coronavirus patients.
Labour’s leader in the chamber, Baroness Smith of Basildon, hit back saying that the government had prioritised overseas companies at the expense of hundreds of British firms who were offering to help to produce tonnes of essential medical items.
Baroness Smith said: ‘This is urgent. It’s been urgent for weeks and it’s going to continue to be urgent. The government needs to be fleet of foot and flexible.’
Liberal Democrat Baroness Brinton said care home workers were at the greatest risk of contracting Covid-19 and demanded to know when homes would receive the PPE they needed.
The minister assured peers the ‘full weight’ of Whitehall was behind fixing the problem but shied away from answering just how much kit is be needed by frontline staff.
He said: ‘The government has stepped up in helping care homes in many ways. Nearly a billion items of PPE have been distributed in the last six weeks and we will continue in that commitment.’
He said of the 25,000 firms that had offered to help produce PPE, only three have begun manufacturing while another 175 enter ‘advanced round’ checks.
Labour Lord Andrew Adonis branded the comments ‘meaningless’. He wrote on Twitter: ‘What is Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) doing to get enough PPE? Minister Lord Bethell says there will be ‘enough’ but that is of course meaningless unless it gets to the NHS frontline where it is needed.’
In the same sitting, a minister justified using a 1824 food riot bill to deal with rough sleepers during the crisis.
The 1824 Vegrancy Act made sleeping in public or begging an offence. It was introduced as a means to deal with large swathes of the population during one of the UK’s worst food riots.
The minister also rebuffed claims that ministers failed to ask Turkey for permission to transport vital PPE to the UK before briefing the public. He said the government had been in constant contact with authorities in Ankara and were thankful for their support.