U.K.’s Pandemic Response ‘Too Slow’ and Cost Taxpayers Billions
Clinical staff wear personal protective equipment as they care for a patients in the ICU at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, U.K. (Photographer: Neil Hall/EPA/Bloomberg)

U.K.’s Pandemic Response ‘Too Slow’ and Cost Taxpayers Billions


The U.K. lost a “crucial month” in its fight against coronavirus because it was too slow to respond to a shortage of ventilators, while the delay in sourcing protective equipment came at a cost of 10 billion pounds ($13.3 billion) to the taxpayer, according to two spending reports.

Ministers only started efforts to buy more ventilators on March 3, just over a month after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic a public health emergency, the House of Commons spending watchdog said Wednesday. The National Audit Office, which scrutinizes public spending, said the U.K.’s tardiness in sourcing PPE forced ministers to pay “very high prices” for new kit -- much of which came too late for the first wave of infections.

The two reports are likely to pile more pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government over its handling of the pandemic. The U.K.’s death toll of more than 55,000 is among the highest in the world, while the economic damage is also severe. Forecasts due to be published Wednesday are expected to show GDP shrinking around 11% this year -- the most in more than 300 years.

Government stockpiles of PPE were intended for an influenza pandemic and weren’t adequate for the Covid-19 outbreak, the NAO said in its report. Between February and July, the government spent 12.5 billion pounds on 32 billion items of PPE, of which only 2.6 billion were delivered to frontline organizations, according to the NAO.

Meanwhile the PAC said it recognized the “significant achievement” of securing an extra 26,000 ventilators between March and early August. But committee chair Meg Hillier said this came about “much more by luck than design,” and the government “incredibly had no plan for sourcing critical care equipment in an international emergency.”

The government said the number of ventilators procured means it is now better prepared for future emergencies.

“The NHS now has access to over 30,000 mechanical and 15,000 non-invasive ventilators,” the department of health said in a statement. “This is more than three times as many as it had at the start of the pandemic so we are well prepared to meet any future need.”

On concerns raised over PPE, Health Minister Jo Churchill said the government had set up “robust and resilient supply chains from scratch” and would provide a “continuous supply to our amazing front-line workers” over the coming months.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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