Hancock denies PPE shortages caused any of 1,500 NHS staff deaths from COVID-19

Matt Hancock has told MPs that 1,500 health and care staff have died during the pandemic - but denied PPE shortages were to blame despite evidence of clinicians having to use ‘bin bags’ as protection.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: HGL/GC Images/Getty Images)
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: HGL/GC Images/Getty Images)

The health and social care secretary told MPs on 10 June: 'It saddens me enormously that around 1,500 people from health and social care lost their lives in this pandemic.'

The figure cited by Mr Hancock is almost double the number published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) earlier this year. More than 850 health and social care staff died from COVID-19 between 9 March and 28 December 2020, according to ONS figures published in January - and GPonline understands that at least 15 practising GPs have died from the virus.

Mr Hancock told MPs at a joint hearing with the House of Commons health and social care and science and technology committees that there had never been a national shortage of PPE despite ‘huge challenges’.

He expressed regret at the death of NHS workers, who he said had ‘faced some of the toughest situations of their lives’. But he argued that the government had done ‘everything [it] possibly could to protect staff'.

PPE shortages

GPonline reported last year that GPs were facing problems around stocks and quality of PPE, while some GP surgeries were told by their CCG to buy their own face masks because of short supplies.

Labour MP for Luton North Sarah Owen questioned how the health secretary could deny that there was - at one point - a national shortage of PPE after ‘seeing with our own eyes nurses in bin bags instead of proper PPE’.

Mr Hancock said: ‘I can make that assessment because the National Audit Office (NAO) came and looked at all of the details here. PPE was a huge challenge - we had a stockpile, and we released it.

‘We started buying PPE in February… but it was difficult because global demand shot up...I have acknowledged throughout that there were individual challenges in getting hold of PPE, but at a national level there was never a point at which we ran out.'

NHS staff deaths

When asked about a higher death rate for healthcare workers compared to the general population, the health and social care secretary said: ‘Sadly so many health and social care workers have died in this pandemic. And that’s because they were often at the frontline.’

He continued: ‘We’ve looked into this and there’s no evidence I have seen that a shortage of PPE provision led to anybody dying of COVID-19. Now that is from the evidence I have seen.

‘What I do know is that PPE provision was tight, and it was difficult throughout the world, but we did manage - it was pretty close sometimes- but we did manage to ensure that at a national level we had the PPE.’

The health and social care secretary also defended the government’s response to the pandemic, insisting that COVID-19 patients never went without treatment, and that lockdowns were enforced to ensure the NHS was protected.

Mr Hancock's evidence to the joint committee hearing comes after Dominic Cummings, a former advisor to prime minister Boris Johnson, told MPs that the health and social care secretary had lied to cabinet colleagues and the public and should have been sacked multiple times through the pandemic. Mr Hancock has denied lying.

Mr Cummings told MPs that people ‘did not get the treatment they deserved’ and that ‘many people were left to die in horrific circumstances’.

Mr Hancock, however, said: ‘There was no point at which I was advised that...people were not getting the treatment they needed. On the contrary, one of the things in which we succeeded in doing through the entire response of this pandemic is to protect the NHS so that people have always had access to treatment for COVID-19.’

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