Friday 27 November 2020 2:53 pm

Exclusive: Government U-turns on claim that '70 per cent' of England's PPE is made in the UK

The government has made an apparent U-turn on claims that 70 per cent of England’s personal protective equipment (PPE) supply is made in the UK, following an admission that it does not hold any official figures on where PPE is manufactured, City A.M. can reveal.

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) in September set out a strategy to boost UK-based supply of PPE and wean Britain off its reliance on Asian products.

It set out plans for “UK-based supply… to meet 70 per cent of forecasted demand in England in December for all categories of PPE excluding gloves” — up from 1 per cent at the start of the pandemic.

The department confirmed that “UK-based supply” meant PPE manufactured in the UK, rather than British-based procurement from overseas.

DHSC praised the “extraordinary leap” as representative of UK industry’s “can do attitude” to the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking in the Commons last week, health and social care minister Jo Churchill declared that the government had achieved its target.

“We have a four-month stockpile of all Covid-critical PPE in place,” she said. “Thanks must go to the tremendous contribution from UK manufacturers, which now meet 70 per cent of our PPE needs.”

No figures

However, a Freedom of Information request has revealed that “for figures on UK-based supply of PPE in England, DHSC does not currently produce any official statistics”.

DHSC added that it did not hold equivalent data for the devolved nations, but was “working towards an official statistics publication in the future”.

More than 200m PPE items were distributed to England’s health and social care services in the week to 22 November. 

Gloves made up more than 128m of the total figure — around 62 per cent.

However, DHSC has repeatedly stated that none of England’s gloves supply is produced in the UK, since the raw materials needed for PPE gloves are not available in Britain.

Once gloves are taken into account, the government’s commitment for UK-based PPE makes up just over over a quarter of the total supply.

In a scathing report published last week, the National Audit Office (NAO) estimated that just 12 per cent of all PPE ordered by the government’s supply chain between February and July came from UK manufacturers. 

It cautioned that any future scale-up would likely result in “high prices of UK-manufactured PPE compared with global market prices”.

However, the NAO also found that international demand for PPE during the pandemic created a “sellers’ market” for global suppliers. 

Inflated costs meant the British government paid as much as 1,310 per cent of usual prices for some PPE supplies from overseas, at an extra cost to the UK taxpayer of £10bn.

Speaking in the Commons last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “very proud” of the UK’s efforts to secure adequate PPE supplies during the pandemic, and reaffirmed the government’s commitments to boosting UK-based supply. 

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, told City A.M.: “At the height of an international crisis, and four weeks away from fundamental changes at our national borders, we do not need another arbitrary, distracting, target-to-be-missed.

“We need working plans in place to obtain, store and distribute PPE to the front line workers, carers and patients that need it. The essential speed of this work does not give any kind of license to dump normal standards and safeguards.”