Report finds privatisation of NHS supply chains ‘severely undermined’ coronavirus PPE supply

A man wearing a face mask walks past a rainbow graffiti in support of the NHS; Victoria Jones/ PA Im

A man wearing a face mask walks past a rainbow graffiti in support of the NHS; Victoria Jones/ PA Images - Credit: PA

A report has claimed that the private supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to hospitals is to blame for bottlenecks during the coronavirus outbreak.

It is alleged that a 'dysfunctional' supply chain process and the production of essential PPE by private firms is behind the recent 'fiasco' of hospitals not receiving enough protective kit.

Authors We Own It, a group of campaigners protesting privatisation of public services, and the Public Services International Research Unit at the University of Greenwich say that part-privatisation of NHS Supply Chain - the government organisation that oversees the supply of goods to health bodies - is leading to inefficiencies in the health service's coronavirus response.

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They also say more than 11 private suppliers provide medical equipment to hospitals.

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In the case of PPE, they reported that parcel delivery company DHL led the procurement process for suppliers and private logistics firms who then provided hospitals with the medical items, removing civil servants from the process.

The report, named Privatised and Unprepared: The NHS Supply Chains, also blamed what it called 'just in time' business models used by private companies like logistics business Unipart for the run down of PPE supplies. It alleges that this system encourages the reduction of stock.

Researchers argue that this creates a risk for the NHS that sufficient supplies are not available to manage unforeseen events, such as the current epidemic.

They also say the system's part-privatisation made it 'fundamentally dysfunctional'.

Having no central command over the procurement and distribution process, they say, has 'severely undermined' the national effort to protect NHS and care staff, turning the pandemic into 'an utter disaster'.

Professor David Hall, from the University of Greenwich, called for NHS Supply Chain to be nationalised saying that a semi-privatised system 'created a complex, fragmented, unresponsive and bureaucratic mess' which has left the health system 'unprepared and ill equipped to tackle the current crisis.'

'So much responsibility has been outsourced to so many contractors that the secretary of state literally cannot know what he is doing. It is shocking that DHL, the parcel delivery subsidiary of Deutsche Post has been deciding how to spend over £4 billion of the NHS budget,' he said.

A number of private companies also face specific criticism over their coronavirus response in the report, including consulting firm Deloitte for its coordination of testing centres, along with the companies it has contracted to run them including the outsourcing giant Serco.

Researchers say those companies were in charge of building and running coronavirus drive-through testing centres which they say were located 'too far away' from populations. They also accuse them of losing test results, and in some cases, giving them to the wrong person.

A Serco spokesperson responded to the claims saying that testing and the communication of results of the centres they managed fell with the Department of Health while DHL said it only procures medical devices and diagnostic equipment, not PPE.

Deloitte, too, challenged the accusations saying the Department of Health was responsible for picking subcontractors to run testing centres while it assists with strategy development around increasing testing capacity.

We Own It director Cat Hobbs said: 'It is beyond scandalous that so much of the coronavirus response has been handed over to private companies - companies that have failed time and time again to deliver.

'This crisis has shown us that the NHS is made far more vulnerable by privatisation, and so many failings - from the failure to distribute sufficient PPE to the ineffective approach to testing - lie at the door of private companies.

'From now on, we need to ensure that our NHS is run in the interest of public health, not private profit. In doing so, the government needs to reinstate it as a fully publicly owned and run health service.'

A Department of Health spokesperson has said the report 'appears' to be based on 'a number of fundamental misunderstandings'.

They said that suppliers are a mixture of public and private sector organisations while adding that the management body in charge or running NHS Supply Chain - Supply Chain Coordination Limited - is a publicly-owned non-for-profit company.

'NHS Supply Chain has traditionally been an organisation that supplies products to about 230 hospitals. The government now has a responsibility to deliver PPE to 58,000 settings, scaling that in a very short amount of time, under intense pressure,' the spokesperson said.

'We are working around the clock to ensure PPE is delivered as quickly as possible to the frontline of this global pandemic, and this has been made possible by the fantastic teamwork between the government, NHS and key private companies'.

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