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The supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 has had an extraordinary impact on global demand for, and supply of, personal protective equipment (PPE) in 2020. Demand for PPE rocketed in England from March, when NHS and care workers, together with key workers in other industries, started to require protection from patients, colleagues and members of the public who potentially had COVID-19. There was also a surge in demand in other countries. At the same time, the global supply of PPE declined as a result of a fall in exports from China (the country that manufactures the most PPE) in February. Some other countries also imposed temporary restrictions on the export of PPE.

The result was an extremely overheated global market − a ‘sellers’ market’ − with desperate customers competing against each other, pushing up prices, and buying huge volumes of PPE often from suppliers that were new to the PPE market. The situation was made more difficult as the guidelines for wearing PPE, and the specifications and certifications that different types of PPE must meet, are complex and were updated throughout the pandemic, in particular as understanding of the virus improved.

Scope of the report

This report examines:

  • responsibilities for PPE supply in England (Part One);
  • the emergency response to PPE shortages, focusing on the performance of national bodies in obtaining and distributing PPE to local organisations (Part Two);
  • the experience of health and social care providers and their workforce (Part Three); and
  • the Department of Health & Social Care’s (the Department’s) new PPE strategy (Part Four).

This report does not include an examination of the procurement process and controls in place during the emergency. A separate National Audit Office report, published in November 2020, examined government procurement during the pandemic, including the checks carried out into the suitability of new suppliers of PPE, and how offers from suppliers were considered.