More than 60 million items of PPE have now been distributed to the health service across Northern Ireland since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.
But Stormont’s health committee heard that 250,000 medical gowns sent to England at the start of the outbreak have yet to be replaced and that as yet the Republic of Ireland had not been able to supply a share of ventilators.
Taking questions at the Stormont committee on Tuesday morning were representatives of the Business Services Organisation (BSO), which is responsible for the procurement and distribution of equipment across the Health Trusts in Northern Ireland.
BSO Chairman Liam McIvor told the committee that, since February, 146 ventilators had been sourced through local and national supply routes, with 494 more on order.
“Dialogue with the Republic of Ireland has continued throughout Covid-19 but to date the Republic of Ireland has not been able to share supply of ventilators,” he said.
“From March 1, 60 million items of PPE have been distributed for use throughout health and social care and in the independent and community sector.
“In the seven days until April 24, the BSO has issued 12.6m items of PPE to Trusts and GPs. That compares to the number of weekly items delivered in 2019 of 1.45 million.
“At present, PPE is a sellers market and demand outstrips supply.”
Health Committee chairperson Colm Gildernew admitted that the situation around PPE seems to have improved in the last few days, but said mistakes had been made on supply.
“Planning was not adequate,” he said. “Policy decisions taken have left staff unprotected and that is unforgivable.”
Mr McIvor admitted there were elements which were unforeseen, if not unforeseeable, but that ultimately policy decisions were the responsibility of the Department.
“We will work with the committee to identify and apply learning and seek to be better prepared as we go forward,” he said.
UUP’s Alan Chambers asked if Northern Ireland was being “treated as a poor relation” regarding the share of equipment through the four-nation approach.
BSO Assistant Director of Procurement and Logistics Peter Wilson told the committee BSO have found themselves “in a unique situation” regarding the gowns they supplied to England.
“BSO hasn’t had any problems sourcing any stock nationally other than the national availability of those stock lines,” he said.
“When BSO has asked if they have sufficient supply they have generally provided”.
BSO chairman Mr McIvor also outlined that the organisation has received over 1230 offers of PPE from 400 local suppliers, and that they are currently working with Bloc Blinds, O’Neills Sports and McKeevers among others to source locally produced equipment.
But he did admit that they had run into difficulties accessing supplies from China.
“Many companies have links with China and we have followed these but when it comes to exporting the goods we’ve found that these Chinese companies do not have permission to export from the Chinese government,” he said.
Deputy chairperson Pam Cameron of the DUP asked if BSO expects any support from the Army in the distribution of PPE in this or any subsequent outbreak of the virus.
Peter Wilson said that BSO has been able to cope with distribution within its existing arrangements so far using its own fleet of vehicles and a third party distribution company.
“At this point we don’t envisage using military support, but that doesn’t mean to say at some point that might not change.
“Who knows what a second surge might bring?” he added. “None of us foresaw how bad Covid would be”.
When asked about rumours that some orders for scrubs were cancelled, Mr Wilson said he was unaware of that although there may have been reductions in some orders.
“BSO normally carries four weeks stock but increased this to 12 weeks from January. We have stocked up to meet the demands posed by Covid,” he said.
“There are five procurement points, that they have the “right goods, in the right place, at the right time, the right quality, and the right price.
“Our focus has been on securing the right quality of goods and available when they’re absolutely needed and to do that at the best price.
“Prices are significantly different to what we experience normally.”