The UK government has written off £14.9 billion ($18.5 billion) of spending on COVID-19 medical supplies which remain unused, Britain’s public spending watchdog has revealed.
In its report into the accounts of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), published on Jan. 26, the National Audit Office (NAO) said that the UK government’s losses on personal protection equipment (PPE) and other items procured during the COVID-19 pandemic were higher than previously announced.
According to the report, the DHSC estimates that in 2021–2022 there had been a £6 billion reduction in the value of items procured in response to the pandemic.
According to the NAO, the DHSC said the financial reduction in pandemic-procured goods included a £2.5 billion write-down on items originally costing £11.2 billion.
The department had already purchased the goods—including PPE, lateral flow, and PCR testing kits, along with COVID-19 vaccines and medicines—but no longer expects to use them, or the market price is now lower than that paid.
A further £3.5 billion was a write-down on PPE, vaccines, and medication which the DHSC has “committed to purchase, but no longer expects to use.”
“Taken together with the £8.9 billion written-down in its 2020–21 accounts, over the last two financial years, DHSC has now reported £14.9 billion of write-down costs related to PPE and other items,” the NAO said.
The DHSC estimates that ongoing storage and disposal costs for its excess and unusable PPE will be £319 million. At the end of March 2022, the estimated monthly spending on storing PPE was £24 million.
The main opposition Labour Party has attempted to put the blame partly on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, pointing out that he was chancellor of the Exchequer while the expenditure on medical garments, face coverings, and other items took place.
Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said it was “staggering” that £14.9 billion had been “wasted.”
“The Conservatives can never again claim to be the careful stewards of the public finances,” he said.
“While Rishi Sunak had control of the purse strings, a staggering £15 billion of public money was wasted on useless PPE—enough to fund the police force for an entire year. Instead, that money is now literally going up in smoke.
“Taxpayers will rightly judge the carelessness with which the Conservatives treat their money to be an absolute scandal.”
But the government said it is “misleading” to say that £14.9 billon of taxpayers’ money has been wasted.
A government spokeswoman said: “In the face of an unprecedented pandemic, we had to compete in an overheated global market to procure items to protect the public, frontline health and care workers, and our NHS (National Health Service).
“Buying vital COVID vaccines and medicines also helped save countless lives and keep NHS and care staff safe.
“Our approach meant that we were the first country in the world to deploy an approved COVID vaccine, with 144 million doses administered, and we have delivered over 25 billion items of PPE to the front line.”
The NAO also found “significant shortcomings in financial control and governance” at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
As a result, officials said comptroller and auditor general Gareth Davies was unable to provide an audit opinion on the body’s accounts for the financial year, instead issuing what is known as a “disclaimer of opinion.”
The UKHSA, a government agency set up to replace Public Health England (PHE) in 2021, was responsible for testing the population and tracing potential variants of concern during the pandemic.
Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons, said: “It is astonishing and unacceptable that the UK Health Security Agency—an agency within DHSC that absorbed the work of Test and Trace—could not provide the National Audit Office with enough information to carry out its 2021–22 audit.
“Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent, including on Test and Trace.”
The NAO said “critical elements of internal control were not in place during UKHSA’s first six months,” with the lack of formal governance arrangements exposing it to a “high level of risk.”
Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Even taking into account the challenging context, it is unacceptable that UKHSA has not been able to produce auditable accounts and provide the transparency and assurance that Parliament needs.
“When setting up new bodies, it is essential that basic governance arrangements are put in place. DHSC and UKHSA must work with HM Treasury to get on track to produce auditable accounts.”
UKHSA chief executive Dame Jenny Harries said they accepted the NAO’s findings and were treating them “very seriously.”
“The UKHSA was created in unprecedented circumstances and tackling COVID-19 was our first priority,” she said.
“We have already made good progress and are now substantially different in terms of stability, governance, and financial controls. We will be working closely with DHSC to ensure our future accounts are more robust.”
PA Media contributed to this report.