It is a story that has been repeated throughout the coronavirus crisis. An under pressure minister makes a promise about the delivery of protective equipment, new technology or testing capability only to discover that reality fails to match the hype.
The result, as the saga of the shipment of 400,000 apparently unusable protective gowns from Turkey shows, is that trust in politicians among the public and above all those on the frontline of the pandemic in the NHS and social care has been eroded.
Three weeks ago, on 18 April, when the NHS was days away from running out of the water resistant gowns essential to safe working in coronavirus intensive care, the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, thought he had the answer.
He rashly promised at Downing Street’s daily press conference that “a very large consignment of PPE” was due to arrive in the UK from Turkey the following day, amounting to 84 tonnes of equipment and including 400,000 gowns.
The Turkish supplier, Selegna, said on Thursday that the order had been placed in desperation a couple of days earlier. The company contacted the NHS about the possibility of supplying the gowns and a deposit was paid immediately. The badly needed gowns were supposed to be delivered three days later.
In fact the shipment was delayed for several days and despite being inspected by British officials in Istanbul, it was eventually discovered and then belatedly acknowledged that the gowns were no good for NHS use.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said Jenrick and other ministers should have been more circumspect. “We called on the government and national NHS leaders to be careful about announcing consignments of PPE from overseas until they know they have arrived, are unpacked and the kit has been checked to ensure it passes safety tests,” he said.
Trusts had been working around the clock to secure alternative supplies as a result, he added.
NHS insiders said the PPE crisis had eased over the past three weeks despite the fiasco over the Turkish order, partly because the number of patients in hospital had fallen, but that masks and gowns were still in short supply. The real casualty, however, was faith across the system, they argued.
They said doctors, nurses and other frontline staff increasingly believed that when Public Health England altered gown standards last month, it was done to save ministers face rather than satisfy the needs of frontline staff. The changes were arguably medically justified, but there was no faith that they were being introduced for the right reasons.
Niall Dickson, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across healthcare, said: “We have warned repeatedly that setting big targets which are then not met and saying all will be well, when at the sharp end of care it is manifestly not, undermines confidence among clinical staff on the frontline.”
The Turkish PPE saga is far from an isolated case, particularly when a new product or treatment is sought. It emerged a week ago that an order for 250 ventilators sourced from China had to be ditched because they were badly made and even have posed a potential danger to patients.
The devices had been obtained earlier in April as part of a desperate round-the-world trawl to try to meet a target set by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, of procuring 18,000 to meet the anticipated coronavirus peak.
New devices designed by non-specialist manufacturers such as Dyson as part of a much hyped “ventilator challenge” also turned out not to be ready quickly enough, although they were not ultimately needed because number of coronavirus cases was lower than expected.
NHS insiders say the pandemic has put unprecedented strain on the centralised procurement system, under which buyers have to meet the needs not only of large trusts but also GP practices, care homes and other smaller facilities.
Mistakes have been made, but since a group of trust chief executives were drafted in to help the NHS Supply Chain, through which most procurement is undertaken, the situation is said to have improved despite the latest debacle.
Ministerial promises on testing have also rung hollow. Hancock said he had bought 3.5m antibody tests from China at the end of March, and promised they would “come online very soon”. A fortnight later it became apparent the tests did not work, and ministers denied that $20m had been paid up front for them.
Despite that blunder, Hancock then promised 100,000 antigen tests, which detect the presence of the virus, would be carried out each day by the end of April. The target that was achieved for two days, with the help of counting tests in the post, and then missed for five days in a row. The tally for Thursday was 86,583, and it emerged that there were shortages of the chemical reagents required to conduct them.
Dickson said it was recognised that everyone in government and the NHS was doing their best to combat the virus, but that the public’s trust was at risk. “It really is better to under-promise and over-deliver,” he said.