NI within days of running out of PPE at start of the pandemic

Northern Ireland’s health service faced shortages of PPE equipment for workers throughout the early days of the Covid pandemic, a new audit office report has found.

Health workers wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) tend to a patient onan intensive care unit
Health workers wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) tend to a patient onan intensive care unit

The report by Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said that there was less than one week’s supply of most items available throughout most of March 2020.

He said that work is required to improve demand modelling and develop responsive and flexible supply chains for the future.

The early days of the pandemic in 2020 brought a huge increase in demand for sourcing and procuring PPE equipment, vital in helping control the spread of infections in health and social care settings.

The report stated: “Overall demand for PPE increased sharply, rising by 429% in comparison to 2019.

“The need for specific items also spiked by between 3,700% and 16,500% for items only previously used on a limited basis.

“At the same time, intense global demand meant supplies became very limited.”

In Northern Ireland, equipment for the health and social care (HSC) sector was purchased by the Business Services Organisation’s Procurement and Logistics Service (BSO PaLS), an arm’s length body of the Department of Health.

The auditor’s report said that while individual independent care sector (ICS) providers bought their own PPE before the pandemic, extreme difficulties in securing equipment meant that the sector has been supplied with PPE free of charge through BSO PaLS from mid-April 2020.

Nearly £400 million of PPE was purchased by BSO PaLS between January 2020 and April 2021, compared with £3 million spent in 2019.

The report stated: “The early stages of the pandemic saw a dramatic rise in demand for core PPE, the total number of items required each month by the HSC and ICS sectors increased by 429%, from the 6.3 million items used by HSC providers in 2019 to 33 million items between March 2020 and May 2021.

“Faced with hugely increased demand and supply constraints, BSO PaLS initially struggled to build sustainable PPE stocks.

“Its existing contracts proved incapable of providing reliable supplies, and it held less than one week’s supply of most items throughout most of March 2020.”

The report highlights “clear evidence of PPE shortages across the HSC sector and ICS nursing and residential homes well into April 2020, particularly for FFP3 (respirator) masks”.

It stated: “As supply pressures eased, the total number of core PPE items delivered to healthcare providers increased, from 17 million in March 2020, to an average of 32 million items every four weeks between late April 2020 and May 2021.”

The report said that supplies amongst ICS providers improved significantly following the department of health’s mid-April 2020 decision to routinely provide them with PPE free of charge.

But it added that that the Royal College of Nursing and Independent Health & Care Providers (IHCP) considered improvements “were only secured after extensive lobbying, and, according to IHCP, only after Covid-19 cases began escalating in care homes”.