One billion items of Covid PPE were stuck in a warehouse with only one door while NHS staff wore binbags, says Hancock

2 December 2022, 19:38 | Updated: 2 December 2022, 20:06

One billion items of PPE were stuck in a warehouse with only one door, Matt Hancock has said
One billion items of PPE were stuck in a warehouse with only one door, Matt Hancock has said. Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Kit Heren

The British government bought one billion items of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the Covid-19 pandemic, only for much of it to be unusable because it was stuck in a warehouse with only one door.

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Former health secretary Matt Hancock revealed the shocking blunder in his Covid diaries, saying he was "absolutely furious" at the mistake.

In the diaries, serialised in the MailOnline, Mr Hancock said that PPE supply chain in the NHS had effectively broken down by the time of the first lockdown in late March 2020 - a "total disaster".

He said that ministers had no "clear record" of the UK's stock of PPE when Covid first hit, with much of it out of date by the time it was needed.

Matt Hancock
Matt Hancock. Picture: Getty

Mr Hancock wrote on March 17, 2020: "I've been told we have a billion items of PPE in a warehouse in the North West. 'Hooray!' I thought.

"Just one problem – we can't get it out. It turns out that it's in a huge storage unit with only one door. Ergo, only one lorry can pull up at a time. What a classic government fail."

Stories soon emerged of staff without proper PPE, potentially exposing themselves to a deadly virus. Pictures circulated on social media showing NHS workers wearing bin bags as a last resort instead of PPE.

An NHS worker wearing PPE in Cambridge
An NHS worker wearing PPE in Cambridge. Picture: Getty

Mr Hancock wrote: "My heart sank. It's completely unacceptable. Naturally we're being accused of sending these brave NHS staff to their potential doom by not giving them the protection they need.

"The absurdity of the situation is that we actually have enough – we just can't get it out of the damn warehouse." The following day the army came in to help out, he wrote.

"The Army is doing a great job on PPE delivery. Now I've seen what they can do, I want to get them involved in the proposed ExCel Centre temporary hospital. The PM is keen," he said. By March 30, Mr Hancock said deliveries had "collapsed".

Mr Hancock wrote that before Covid hit, the government was giving PPE in small amounts to 250 hospitals, but now it had to send it to tens of thousands of GP surgeries, care homes and dentists, as well as the hospitals.

Medical staff treat a suspected Covid-19 patient in Coventry
Medical staff treat a suspected Covid-19 patient in Coventry. Picture: Getty

The then-health secretary added: "Hats off to those who bought a billion items of PPE all those years ago – I just wish they'd put more thought into getting it out."

"Worse, it turns out a load of it is now out of date, and some kit bought over a decade ago doesn't conform to the latest standards. Then there's a batch which is actually still usable but has the wrong 'best before' date on it. How we will persuade people to use that is anyone's guess."

Read more: 'I want forgiveness': Hancock admits 'error' of kissing Gina under Covid rules but stands by pandemic response

On the same day, he wrote: "The government-owned company that gets PPE supplies to hospitals across the NHS has effectively collapsed. Total disaster. I'm absolutely furious that the people who are meant to be experts in logistics have been unable to cope because there are too many actual logistics. WTF?"

Mr Hancock went on: "We've been buying more from China, but the immediate problem is still lorry access to our storage facility in the North West, where there's only one door. Funnily enough, nobody has been able to magic up any extra entrances, so we're still stuck with single lorryloads at a time."

James O'Brien hears from caller who offered free PPE to hospitals

Earlier, on January 2020, he wrote that Public Health England's (PHE) audit of PPE came back "and did not lighten my mood. There's no clear record of what's in the stockpile, and some kit is past its 'best before' date. I've instructed officials to work out what we need fast, and buy in huge quantities."

In the same entry Mr Hancock wrote that he wanted to forcibly quarantine all British people flown back from the original outbreak centre of Wuhan, but that PHE told him this would breach their human rights.

He said: "The Wuhan Brits are on their way back. I've had a showdown with officials and lawyers over what to do with the evacuees when they land at RAF Brize Norton.

"PHE thinks they should be greeted with a smile and a leaflet and asked nicely to go home and stay there for a couple of weeks. I said they should go straight into quarantine. PHE started hand-wringing about human rights.

British Evacuees repatriated from Wuhan arrive at Arrowe Park Hospital for quarantine procedures
British Evacuees repatriated from Wuhan arrive at Arrowe Park Hospital for quarantine procedures. Picture: Getty

"'OK,' I said, 'let's get them to sign a contract before they board. In return for the flight, they agree to go into quarantine. No contract, no flight'. I was told the contract wouldn't be legally enforceable and was too draconian. 'Do it anyway,' I instructed.'"

It comes as a health minister admitted on Monday that "mistakes were made" on the procurement of PPE during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government has been accused of failing to carry out due diligence in awarding contracts with millions wasted on fraud and equipment not fit for use.

Ministers claim they were under pressure to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) where they could because of a global shortage.

Tory MP defends controversial PPE procurement policies

However, health minister Lord Markham today admitted that mistakes were made during the process of assigning contracts, with around 5% of items either undelivered or unfit for purpose.

He said: "This was at a time of unprecedented action required.

"Of the 38 billion PPE items ordered, 98% were delivered and just 3% were unfit for purpose.

"Now, within those, clearly there's action that needs to be worked on and there is action that is being done to pursue them in terms of those damages."

Read more: Matt Hancock should be "back in Parliament with us uglies" after his I'm A Celebrity stint, Grant Shapps tells LBC

Mr Hancock himself came under fire later on in the pandemic after a photo emerged of him breaking Covid rules by kissing a woman who was not his wife. He has since left government and recently took part in I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, where he finished third.

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