By Rob Picheta, CNN
London (CNN)A high-profile shipment to the UK of 400,000 surgical gowns, hailed by ministers as a solution to Britain’s personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, has ended in catastrophe — with every one of the garments deemed unusable after arriving from Turkey.
The gowns, made by a Turkish company and flown into the UK by the Royal Air Force on April 22, had been touted as an answer to the calls of underprotected health care workers.
But they were never distributed to frontline workers, it has emerged. “If equipment does not meet our specifications or pass our quality assurance processes it is not distributed to the front line,” a spokesperson for the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told CNN on Thursday, when asked if the shipment in question had failed to meet safety standards.
“All deliveries of PPE are checked to ensure the equipment meets the safety and quality standards our frontline staff need,” the DHSC added.
The gowns instead have sat impounded at a warehouse near Heathrow Airport, according to The Telegraph newspaper, which first reported the story.
The government will request a refund if it cannot get a replacement order of gowns that do meet requirements, a spokesman told reporters on Thursday.The debacle nonetheless raises questions about why the public was not told that the equipment was unusable, given that government officials had repeatedly talked up the arrival in the days prior.
“Supply in some areas, particularly gowns and certain types of masks and aprons, is in short supply at the moment, and that must be an extremely anxious time for people working on the frontline,” Housing Minister Robert Jenrick said on April 18, when he unveiled the “very significant” order from Turkey.The next day, Michael Gove touted the arrival of the gowns on TV interviews. On April 21, minister Simon Clarke conceded that while the UK will not run out of PPE, the “margins can be tight.” He cited the Turkey shipment as a factor behind that conclusion.
“We’ve had three flights with gowns from Turkey — because we know that every single one of those items of PPE is needed by those working so hard on the front line,” First Secretary of State Dominic Raab added at the government’s daily coronavirus briefing on April 29.Boris Johnson’s government has faced repeated scrutiny over the lack of PPE in hospitals and care homes, as well as the availability of testing, and the new setback raises further concerns about his response.
In an industry survey in late April, more than a third of British doctors said they did not have appropriate PPE.Of those surveyed, 75% said they did not have long-sleeved gowns, while 38% said they lack eye protection, according to the survey by the Doctors Association UK.
“This is a global pandemic with many countries procuring PPE, leading to shortages around the world, not just the UK,” the DHSC spokesperson said on Thursday. “We are working night and day to source PPE internationally and domestically and brought together the NHS, industry and the armed forces to create a comprehensive PPE distribution network to deliver critical supplies to the frontline.”
But the disappointment masks the latest example of a much-touted government target being missed.
In March the UK ordered millions of antibody tests, described by Johnson as a potential “gamechanger,” but ministers later walked back that optimism after the tests were found not to work.More recently, a self-imposed target of conducting 100,000 tests per day by the end of April was met — but only for two days, and with the help of thousands of tests that were mailed to homes just before the deadline. Tests have subsequently dropped below that mark for four consecutive days, and slumped to just 69,463 on Tuesday.
Earlier this week the UK took from Italy the unwanted mantle of having the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in Europe, according to official figures.At least 30,076 have died in the country since the start of the outbreak, compared to 29,684 in Italy. Only the US has suffered more fatalities.
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio and Simon Cullen contributed reporting