Labour has hit back at claims by the health secretary that there has been no shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic as “an insult”.
Speaking to BBC’s Today programme this morning, Matt Hancock said the UK never had a national shortage of PPE last year.
“It’s easy to ask questions, but what iss hard is to deliver PPE in the teeth of a pandemic,” he added. “And that’s what my team did. And yes, there were individual challenges in access to PPE, but we never had a national shortage, because of my team.”
Hancock later admitted that there had been “a massive shortage of a huge amount of items”, but refused to concede that this amounted to a national shortage.
Rosena Allin-Khan, shadow health minister, said it was “an insult” for Hancock to claim there was no shortage of PPE.
“Many frontline workers had to ration protective equipment, putting themselves at risk,” she said. “Lots of it was inadequate and poorly fitting, and some NHS staff had to make gowns themselves from bin bags.”
Allin-Khan added: “The fact is, it was a smash-and-grab for Tory donors and friends. And protecting workers who were putting themselves in harm’s way to look after people seems to have been an afterthought.”
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, demanded that Hancock issue an apology for his comments, telling MPs in the Commons that “everybody knows” there were PPE shortages.
“The National Audit Office reported on it. We saw nurses resorting to bin bags and curtains for makeshift PPE. Hundreds of NHS staff died,” said Ashworth.
A report from the UK’s spending watchdog published last year found that there were widespread shortages of PPE during the first wave of the pandemic.
“At times, many frontline workers in health and social care reported not having access to the PPE they needed during the height of the shortages,” the National Audit Office (NAO) found.
It highlighted 126 deaths and 8,152 diagnosed cases of Covid-19 among health and care workers that were thought to have been linked to occupational exposure.
“All workers in health care should have had access to appropriate PPE and training both to reduce their own risk of acquiring Covid-19 and the related risk of onward transmission,” the NAO added.
Campaign group Nurses United UK accused Hancock of “gaslighting” frontline workers.
Anthony Johnson, lead organiser of the group, said: “Tens of thousands have ended up sick… This situation didn’t have to happen and I am sure frontline workers will be outraged that this government decided that our lives weren’t worth their donor’s and friend’s profit margins.”
It comes as the health secretary faces pressure to apologise over a High Court ruling last week that found he had broken the law.
Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled that Hancock had acted illegally in failing to publish details of billions of pounds worth of Covid contracts in the initial outbreak of the coronavirus crisis.
Chamberlain declared on Friday that the health secretary “failed to publish redacted contracts in accordance with the transparency policy”.
“The secretary of state spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020. The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded,” Chamberlain said.
He added that Hancock had spent £207,000 of taxpayers’ money fighting the case.
But the health secretary has repeatedly refused to apologise, telling GMB this morning: “If I were given my time again and given the choice between doing work that saved lives or filing paperwork on the right date, I’d have done the same.”