HSE rejects claims it bowed to ‘political’ pressure to approve PPE

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HSE has dismissed claims it came under ‘political’ pressure to approve Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from a particular contractor for use during the coronavirus pandemic.

Work and Pensions Committee chair, Stephen Timms MP wrote to HSE following a BBC news report that claimed the regulator ‘felt leaned on’ by the government to make ‘factually incorrect statements’ about PPE suits bought for NHS staff.

The BBC story centred on PestFix, a business in West Sussex specialising in supplying PPE to protect users from airborne chemicals in a pest-control setting. The company secured a contract in April to supply a £32m batch of isolation suits.

The BBC claimed it had seen emails which it says showed that, after HSE initially failed the suits, officials had subsequently come under pressure to certify them quickly.

HSE said emails citing 'political pressure' to approve isolation suits had not come from anyone inside of HSE. Photograph: iStock

Stephen Timms MP commented that: “While it doesn’t appear that any outside pressure influenced HSE officials making assessments in this case, reports that give an impression of political interference risk harming faith in the safety of PPE.”

His letter put questions to HSE, including whether pressure played any role in the timing or decision to approve the PPE from PestFix for use and whether there have been time pressures generally for HSE to approve PPE.

Responding, HSE Chief Executive, Sarah Albon, said that HSE’s PPE Unit had been working 7 days a week, 16 hours a day to ensure NHS had adequate supplies of safe PPE in the most critical early months of the pandemic.

She said the emails citing pressure appeared to have been made ‘by someone outside of HSE.’

In a letter dated 25 November, she says: “At no time in the management of PPE supply have any HSE staff indicated that there were feelings of pressure being applied to make specific decisions, to change decisions, or to accept lower standards than required of PPE.”

In the case of PestFix, the BBC says that gowns were approved for use and released to hospitals in the summer. But Albon said that sometimes technical assessments had to be repeated. The fact the gowns had been released into hospitals having failed the first inspection did not mean they were unsuitable or unsafe.

“In such cases HSE may have asked the supply chain to obtain further information, or to arrange for further testing, to verify the product. In these cases, products that initially had insufficient or incorrect information provided may have been subsequently reassessed and agreed for supply when those gaps had been addressed.”

She added: “Ultimately, while the circumstances at the height of this supply situation were clearly a pressurised environment, and it was impossible to be unaware of the urgency of supplying PPE to front line health care workers, we also understood the importance of making robust and reliable regulatory decisions, and at the heart of this we knew health care workers would only be protected if they received PPE that was effective.

“All of these decisions were firmly made with that in mind.”

Read our interview with Sarah Albon here 


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