The UK’s biggest supplier of unused Covid personal protective equipment (PPE) said its products might have spoiled because they were left in shipping containers for several months after being delivered.

A BBC investigation has revealed that about £1.4bn-worth of aprons, masks and goggles, which were fully compliant and delivered in good order, have been incinerated, recycled or written off awaiting disposal.

The deal between Full Support Healthcare and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which was worth £1.8bn, is understood to be the most wasteful of the pandemic.

The DHSC, which was responsible for procuring and distributing PPE, said all items relating to the contract “were stored in accordance with the advice on the packaging”.

‘Returned to shipper’

Full Support Healthcare, based in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, was founded by Sarah Stoute and the company is an experienced provider of PPE to the NHS.

As demand from hospitals for PPE surged in early 2020, it mobilised huge quantities of stock from China and agreed orders amounting to 13% of the DHSC’s total spend on Covid PPE.

But information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the government’s PPE procurement partner Supply Chain Co-ordination Ltd (SCCL), shows that 85% of the two billion items provided will never be used in care settings.

It said the equipment would be disposed of, including through a process of generating energy from waste.

Through her lawyers, Mrs Stoute told the BBC the shipping containers that transported her company’s PPE weren’t unloaded “various times up to 207 days post-arrival”.

She said the masks were “perishable goods and required to be kept cool and dry” and “not intended to be stored for a prolonged period in a shipping container, yard or field”.

She said the orders “complied with requirements”.

“It cannot be our responsibility that SCCL ran out of suitable storage space during the pandemic,” Mrs Stoute added.

An aerial view of lines of multi-coloured containers at the Port of Felixstowe with cars driving between them
Thousands of containers of PPE became stuck in the Port of Felixstowe in late 2020

In November 2020, months after Full Support Healthcare’s products arrived in the UK, the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk became log-jammed with thousands of shipping containers of unloaded PPE.

Pictures on social media showed the containers were eventually moved to sites around Suffolk, including Ipswich docks, Mendlesham Airfield and land near Melton railway station.

It is not known for certain where Full Support Healthcare’s PPE was eventually placed but the additional cost to the taxpayer of storing the products is estimated to have exceeded £100m.

Information obtained from SCCL showed 825 million items classed as “excess to forecast requirements” were still being held “where disposal or recycling were possible outcomes”.

A spokesperson for SCCL said: “The Department of Health and Social Care was responsible for the purchasing of PPE during the pandemic and the management of Clipper Logistics.”

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins disputed the BBC’s findings related to the wasted stock but did not provide an explanation.

On “the wider point”, she said “the whole country wanted us to get the PPE that our front-line staff needed both in healthcare and in social care, and we managed to procure billions of pieces of PPE equipment”.

“That was absolutely the right thing to do at the time,” she added.

Shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, described the handling of the deal as “staggering incompetence”.

The Liberal Democrats said the public “deserved transparency on the true cost of these failures”.

Getty Images A large pile PPE packaged in boxes, and each box wrapped in plastic.Getty Images
The government sold hundreds of pallets of Full Support PPE to a third-party private company

Peter Upcott, from consultancy firm PPE Specialist, said “the volume of product would have been known in advance of shipping to the UK” and the government and SCCL “should have had a detailed plan of where and how they were going to be stored”.

In July last year, an illegal dump of medical aprons, which had been supplied in good order by Full Support Healthcare, was found in the New Forest.

Documents seen by the BBC show the stockpile of some 1,550 pallets had been auctioned off by the DHSC to a third-party private company.

It was considered a fire risk by the Environment Agency, which took enforcement action to have it cleared.

Full Support was in no way responsible for the stockpile.

The company’s lawyers said the Stoutes were only made aware of the volume of unused stock when the BBC told them.

They said it was a matter for the government who had not contacted them at any stage about it.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “PPE was secured at the height of the pandemic, competing in an overheated global market where demand massively outstripped supply.

“Nearly half of all the remaining stock was sold, recycled, or donated by the department.

“In line with our reduction of storage and disposal strategy unused items will be turned into energy from waste which will see the department recoup further costs.”


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