The Government has been paying £1 million a day to store a mountain of PPE in ports, despite warnings that NHS staff in need of protective gear are still not getting it, The Telegraph can disclose.
Nearly 10,000 shipping containers full of masks, aprons and gloves are sat on the quayside at Felixstowe, attracting fees at rates so high they are supposed to deter use of the facilities for long-term storage, well-placed sources claim.
The payments would not have to be made at all if PPE supplies were moved on quickly, allowing empty shipping containers to be returned.
On Sunday night unions said that continuing logjams, and guidance restricting the use of PPE, means many frontline workers are still being forced to carry out high-risk procedures without protection.
Yet the glut of PPE – big enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool five times over – has been left on the quay after the NHS ran out of warehouse space.
The stockpile has been amassed following concern that the NHS must not repeat the shortages seen during the first wave of the pandemic, when doctors and nurses were repeatedly denied access to masks and aprons, as the Government scrambled to source more.
Typically, containers that go through the port remain there for around 4.5 days, and importers are eager to move them quickly in order not to attract fees.
However, a mountain of PPE has been building up at Felixstowe since August, and containers are being moved on so slowly that last week there was a backlog of around 11,000.
Any container that sits there for longer than two weeks starts to attract exorbitant fees.
According to a pricing document seen by The Telegraph, the company that owns the port, Hutchison UK, rents out space at £47.38 per day for any container that has been there two weeks or more – equivalent to more than £520,000 for the space to store 11,000 containers.
Eleanor Hadland, a ports analyst at maritime consultancy Drewry, said that charges at the port are designed to discourage customers from blocking the yard with their goods.
“If you leave your container in the main port yard it gradually gets more and more expensive to store it there. It’s a little bit like airport parking, imagine going away for a two-week holiday and leaving your car in the short stay car park at Heathrow. It’s not something you’d want to do.”
In addition, shipping companies charge rental fees for containers that are not returned empty within a certain time frame – usually around four days. Experts said these are usually at least as high as the port rental charges, and can be considerably higher – up to around £75 per day per 20 foot container. At that rate, the daily bill to the taxpayer could have been as high as £1.3 million a day when the backlog was at its worst.
The Government has since orchestrated efforts to move the containers to other sites, believed to include former airfields, but it is understood that on Saturday there were still around 9,000 containers full of PPE at Felixstowe. There are thought to be smaller backlogs at other ports.
A source said: "Somebody got caught short in the first wave and they’ve compensated, and probably overcompensated, by buying tonnes of PPE and the whole thing wasn’t thought through fully.
“They went out, bought loads of it and nobody thought well, what are we going to do with all this PPE once we get it, where are we going to store it?… So all this PPE has arrived and no one knows quite what to do with it now because it’s arrived an awful lot more quickly than it can be used."
Remaining PPE Stock
Hutchison UK declined to comment. However, a statement on the Felixstowe port website states that it has had “a high number of slow-moving containers of PPE occupying storage space”.
Unions said that despite the stockpiles, many NHS frontline staff including paramedics and speech therapists were still being left without vital protective gear.
Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, the Unite national officer for health, said: “The long-running problems with the delivery of PPE are a national scandal that have shocked the public – and we are now calling for the Government’s PPE ‘czar’ Lord Deighton to urgently explain why there are continuing logjams in the supply chain.
“Our members on the NHS and social care frontline, such as speech and language therapists, paramedics and health visitors, are still reporting difficulties getting the necessary PPE nine months after the first lockdown.”
Visual guide to safe PPE
Christina McAnea, Unison assistant general secretary, said: “Health and care workers can’t avoid close contact with patients and vulnerable people to carry out their jobs. Having plentiful access to the right PPE is vital and we have to make sure all key workers are well equipped.
“While it’s important to maintain a stock of supplies, it has to flow to people when they need it to ensure everyone stays safe rather than wasting millions on storage.”
On Saturday night, a Government spokesman said: “We have a storage network in place that lets us access and manage our PPE supply to meet demand throughout the winter.
“The amount of PPE stock held on quay at Felixstowe is already coming down rapidly, from nearly 7,000 containers in late October to under 4,000 now, with further reductions expected up to Christmas.”