A health minister has confirmed the delayed Turkish shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE) has landed in the UK but struggled to explain why so many offers of gowns, masks and other items from British suppliers have been ignored.
Helen Whately, the care minister, said at least part of the consignment arrived on Wednesday morning on an RAF flight and was being checked, after an unexplained four-day hold up.
The Airbus 400M Atlas transport plane was about 60% full, sources said. It was estimated to be carrying 20 tonnes of the 84 tonnes of stock ordered by health officials desperate to replenish low supplies.
This included a supply of protective gowns, but it is thought unlikely that all 400,000 gowns the health service is seeking for frontline staff have arrived in the UK, where the NHS is using the 150,000 gowns a day.
The plane had been dispatched from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, where two other aircraft have been on standby to pick up further supplies from Turkey since late on 20 April.
The Department of Health and Social Care was blamed for failing to secure the necessary export approvals from Turkey after placing the order, but health sources said on 22 April that there were other reasons for the delay.
The supplier had contacted the NHS on 16 April to say it could make 150,000 gowns, and the UK placed an order on 17 April, paying a deposit to secure delivery. But almost immediately it was told there was an unexpected manufacturing delay.
Originally three RAF transport planes had been on standby to pick up the equipment, but in desperation a single plane was sent to Istanbul on 20 April to pick up whatever was available, finally heading back the following night.
The planes remain on standby at RAF Brize Norton and may fly to Istanbul imminently if there is enough equipment waiting to make the journey worthwhile. “We’ve been told there is another delivery at the airport now, but we are not yet sure if there’s enough to justify a flight,” a defence source said.
Turkish sources said they had done everything they could to expedite the shipment, but said Britain had not asked for export approval until 19 and 20 April. Like many other countries, Turkey has placed controls on the export of medical equipment in the light of the coronavirus crisis.
Meanwhile, in a round of broadcast interviews, Whately failed to explain why offers of PPE sitting in British warehouses were being ignored in many cases, including 16m face masks identified by the Guardian.
She said 3,000 out of 8,000 offers had received a substantive response but the government was prioritising those with bulk supply.
However, she had no answer to why offers of immediate kit sitting in UK stockpiles were not being taken up.
Pressed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said the main reason was a greater focus on “those who have an established supply chain”, even though the government was grateful for all offers.
Despite pleas from NHS leaders for politicians not to talk about kit that has not yet been delivered, Whately said the government was “expecting millions of face masks coming from China” this week.
The government has come in for mounting criticism over its failure to ensure NHS staff treating coronavirus patients have the protective equipment they need.
Ministers insisted they were pursuing “every possible option” to secure additional kit but said that, with unprecedented worldwide demand, the situation was “very challenging”.
Separately, the government said 140,000 gowns had arrived from Myanmar, but with the NHS using 150,000 a day, the demand on resources remains intense.
With fears that staff in hospitals and care homes are risking their lives, the TUC called for an independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the issue to be mounted before the end of the year.