The government failed to buy vital protective equipment that would help it cope with a pandemic, a BBC investigation has revealed.
There were no gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in the supplies that the government had been stockpiling in case a pandemic hit when coronavirus reached the UK.
Critical equipment left out of stockpile
NHS staff have said that the ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment is putting them at risk, as they treat thousands of highly-infectious patients who have contracted Covid-19.
The Panorama investigation found that crucial equipment was left out of the stockpile when it was established in 2009, and that the government subsequently neglected warnings from its own advisers to buy missing items.
The New and Emerging Respiratory Threats Advisory (Nervtag), an expert committee that advises the government on pandemics, recommended the purchase of additional medical gowns last June.
Gowns have swiftly become one of the most difficult protective items to source due to a global shortage in PPE, and are currently in shortest supply in the UK.
Panorama also revealed that millions of lifesaving FFP3 respirator masks – which doctors and nurses claim are in worryingly short-supply – are unaccounted for.
The original 2009 procurement order listed 33 million masks, but only 12 million have been handed out – and the government is unwilling to explain where the other 21 million have gone, according to the BBC.
A government spokesman told Panorama that there was “limited demand” for the masks coming through the Supply Disruption Line, “which is one reason why they haven’t all been distributed”.
They added that gowns were only recommended by Nervtag recently, and would be sought out for the “future stockpile build up”.
The government is “creating panic”
An anonymous NHS insider, described by the BBC as a head of procurement, told Panorama: “There is a complete lack of transparency from the government. They are creating panic, as we don’t know if they can supply us so we are scrambling to get it elsewhere.”
The government also reportedly failed to stockpile visors, swabs needed for testing, and body bags.
Professor John Ashton, a public health expert, told Panorama: “The consequence of not planning; not ordering kit; not having stockpiles is that we are sending into the front line doctors, nurses, other health workers and social workers without the equipment needed to keep them safe.”
The government reportedly responded that the stockpile had been designed for a flu pandemic, and that Covid-19 was a different disease which hospitalised more people.
Panorama also found that the government downgraded its guidance on what PPE should be worn by NHS staff in mid-March, instructing them to wear less safe protective aprons and basic surgical masks in all but the most high-risk circumstances.
At the same time, Covid-19 was officially stripped of its designation as a High Consequence Infectious Disease – a label it had been given in January.
The decision was reportedly a pragmatic one, based on the availability – or lack thereof – of PPE. A government spokesperson responded that Covid-19 was removed from the list because it has a low overall mortality rate.