Australia fared relatively well amid the global struggle to acquire sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government entered into 54 contracts for PPE and other medical equipment, amassing approximately 1.3 billion items of PPE and, for the most part, successfully meeting or exceeding procurement requirements.
The Department of Health stated that “Australia has not, during this pandemic, been in a position where clinically recommended PPE has not been able to be supplied to a health worker.”
There’s no question that Australia’s challenges were relatively small in comparison to many other countries. Nonetheless, there are some important lessons to be learned about the procurement of PPE – both from the Australian government’s handling of the crisis, and mistakes that were made by leaders around the world.
Forward planning is essential
As COVID-19 began to spread rapidly across the globe, it quickly became clear that there were too few suppliers producing too little of the most critically needed PPE. This placed enormous pressure on governments to secure vast quantities of equipment as fast as possible. But could this scramble for supplies have been prevented with better forward planning?
A report from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) released at the end of last year examines the management of the National Medical Stockpile (NMS). The research concludes that in the lead-up to the pandemic, the Federal Government did not properly consider the risks that such an event would pose nor how it would impact PPE stockpiles.
In December 2019, the NMS held just $10.76 million worth of PPE, although a significant portion of this supply was used during the Black Summer bushfire emergency. Between March and May, the government spent $3.23 billion to replenish stocks and acquire crucial medical equipment, including respirators.
Sufficient PPE was deployed to hospitals and aged care facilities but, on some occasions, GP practices were not sufficiently catered for and some resorted to improvising makeshift PPE.
The report recommends that, moving forward, governments acknowledge the very real risk of pandemics and establish a robust Replenishment Plan to manage future crises.
The importance of a fair bidding process
In July 2020, the UK government’s procurement practices hit the headlines when it was uncovered that more than £5.5 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent procuring PPE.
The single bidder emergency procurement process, which bypasses the requirement for rival bidders, was used 60 times in April and May 2020. Citing extreme urgency as justification, the government skipped the process of competitive tendering and instead directly awarded contracts to their chosen suppliers without explanation or full transparency, thus ignoring and undermining its own rules.
Suspicions were raised when it was revealed that PPE contracts had been awarded to close contacts of the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a pest control company, and a wholesaler of sweets – to name but a few of the government’s questionable supplier choices.
The controversy surrounding the UK’s PPE procurement serves to highlight the importance of transparency and due diligence – even during times of crisis. Emergency laws must not be abused or used as an excuse to forgo a fair bidding process. Whenever possible, governments must strive to uphold proper procurement processes.
PASA Health and Hygiene Day
On 21st October 2021, PASA will take a deep dive into the procurement of medical consumables, PPE, and healthcare equipment.
Click here for more information on the 2021 PASA Conference schedule and to register for upcoming events.