The government has been urged to provide a detailed plan for personal protective equipment (PPE) within two months in preparation for a potential second wave of coronavirus, and amid concerns that the issue was not being treated with “sufficient urgency”.
It was also warned that it should not use the Covid-19 pandemic “as an excuse” to ignore 40,000 nurse vacancies.
“There must be total focus now on where the problems were in procurement and supply”
The calls come in a report published today by the Public Accounts Committee on NHS capital expenditure and financial management, which is made up of a group of cross-party MPs.
It lists a series of recommendations for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which includes action on PPE and workforce shortages.
In the report, the committee said it was “extremely concerned” over the widely reported shortages of PPE for health and care staff during the first wave of Covid-19.
Those behind the report were also “not convinced that it is treating the matter with sufficient urgency or that the procurement is robust enough”, adding that the department needed to have a “clear understanding of what is needed and how to distribute it”.
The committee stressed that it was “absolutely vital” that the same issues around PPE did not happen again in the event of a second wave, but said that “uncertainty prevails” around the future provision of local PPE across both health and social care.
Therefore, within the next two months, the committee wants the DHSC to provide a detailed plan which will “clarify its governance arrangements and outline at what point in the future it expects to have a predictable supply of stock and ready access to PPE supply within the NHS and care sectors”.
Commenting on the report, Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “There must be total focus now on where the problems were in procurement and supply in the first wave, and on eradicating them.”
She added that the pandemic had “thrown the deep, long-term underlying problems in NHS capital and financial management into stark relief”.
“There is no room and must be zero tolerance for allowing the underlying funding problems to continue,” said Ms Hillier.
In addition, the report also goes on to raise concerns over staff vacancies in the NHS and warned that the Covid-19 crisis “should not be used as an excuse not to address long-standing issues” like workforce shortages.
It highlighted that there was a “continued lack of long-term investment in people and training” in the health service and noted that NHS England and NHS Improvement were yet to publish the long-awaited people plan, which had been further delayed by the pandemic.
An interim version of the plan had been published in June last year, but the department was “unable to give a definitive timeframe” on when the full version would be ready, noted the committee.
The committee’s report discussed how responsibilities for workforce planning and training were spread across several bodies which included the DHSC, NHS England and NHS Improvement, Health Education England (HEE) and universities.
It said that although NHS England and NHS Improvement reported that “these bodies now have an ‘aligned view as to what now is needed on workforce support and growth’” the committee was “not convinced that the current system will work effectively without a clear line of accountability”.
Therefore, it recommended the department should “review the effectiveness of having a separate body overseeing the planning and supply of the NHS’s future workforce”.
NHS England and NHS Improvement should also work with HEE to “evaluate how workforce planning can be improved including the integration of training and education funding models with service planning and delivery in order to overcome persistent challenges”, noted the report, which added that these bodies should write to the committee by December to update it on progress on this issue.
The report comes after HEE announced an additional £10m of funding will be made available in England to expand clinical placement capacity, as part of efforts to increase the number of student nurses starting courses this September.
HEE has also announced plans to launch an online nurse degree programme in January 2021.
In response to the report, a DHSC spokesperson said the government did not accept the claims made by the committee.
“We have been working around the clock to deliver PPE to the frontline throughout this global pandemic, working with industry, the NHS and the armed forces to create a distribution network to supply over 58,000 settings,” they said.
“Two billion items of PPE have now been delivered and almost 28 billion items have been ordered from UK-based manufacturers and international partners to provide a continuous supply, which will meet the future needs of health and social care staff.
“We will continue to give the NHS whatever it needs and protect it for the future – we have written off £13.4bn of NHS hospital debt, recently announced another £1.5bn of capital investment and we will deliver 50,000 more nurses by end of this Parliament.”
Nursing Times contacted both NHS England and HEE for a response.