Scotland’s central stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) ran “very low” in the early stages of the pandemic, a report has found, while the surge in prices cost the NHS £37.4 million more than normal for the safety kit.
Audit Scotland has released its long-awaited report into how the Scottish Government and NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) managed PPE arrangements.
A similar study carried out at a UK level by the National Audit Office found the UK spent £10 billion extra in inflated prices for PPE due to an “inadequate” stockpile and the surge in global demand early in the pandemic.
The Audit Scotland report, released on Thursday, reiterated its earlier finding that the Scottish Government did not fully implement recommendations from pandemic preparedness exercises.
It also said the Government could have done more to ensure access to PPE and training in its use.
As global demand surged and overseas factories closed, PPE prices doubled in early 2020.
The report said: “Had NHS NSS been able to buy PPE at the same prices as 2019, it would have spent £37.4 million less on PPE stock in the first five months of the pandemic.”
Centrally held stocks of certain key items were “very low” in April 2020, with just 0.3 days’ worth of long-sleeved gowns stored by NSS.
However, individual health boards may have had additional supplies of PPE items, the report noted.
The report went on to say that 78 contracts worth £340 million were awarded to companies providing PPE between March 2020 and June 2021.
A total of 29 of these contracts, worth £98 million, were awarded to new suppliers with no competition.
NHS NSS distributed 1.1 billion items of PPE between March 2020 and April 2021.
The report recommended taking a longer-term approach to procuring PPE, including planning for future pandemics.
It noted NSS is already developing a new stock management system and renting warehouses for PPE.
Stephen Boyle, auditor general for Scotland, said: “The Scottish Government and NHS National Services Scotland worked well together under extremely challenging circumstances to set up new arrangements for the supply and distribution of PPE to health and social care settings.
“The challenge now will be in developing a longer-term approach to PPE supply and distribution that includes both business as usual needs as well as preparing for future pandemics.”
In March this year, MSPs on a Holyrood committee urged the auditor general to publish the PPE spending report more quickly, saying the UK National Audit Office had produced its findings in November 2020.
Scottish Conservative health spokeswoman Annie Wells said: “This Audit Scotland report once again exposes the reality of PPE shortages in Scotland at the height of the pandemic.
“Despite the SNP’s spin that PPE supplies never ran out, this report makes clear that at critical moments, less than a day of some key supplies were available.
“As frontline staff have made clear, the reality is that our NHS was just hours away from disaster because of PPE shortages.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We welcome this report and the issues it highlights.
“Audit Scotland acknowledges that following a dramatic global increase in demand for PPE, the Scottish Government and NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) acted quickly to secure new PPE supplies.
“Covid-19 brought an unprecedented global demand for PPE.
“In the first phase of the pandemic, there were collapses in the international PPE supply chain, combined with greatly increased levels of demand for PPE in Scotland and around the world.
“Scotland never ran out of PPE. Work undertaken by the Scottish Government and its partner organisations at that time included setting up a whole new Scottish supply chain from scratch, with the creation of hundreds of jobs.”